NRAO to receive funding from group searching for intelligent life in the Universe

The National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Telescope is joining in a comprehensive search for signs of intelligent life in the Universe. It will now be part of the “Breakthrough Listen” initiative, an international venture that will scan the nearest million stars in our own galaxy and stars in 100 other galaxies for the telltale radio signature of an advanced civilization, according to a press release from Dr. Tony Beasley, Director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and Dr. Karen O’Neil, Site Director the NRAO’s Green Bank, WV location.

A contract signed with the Breakthrough Prize Foundation will bring approximately 2 million dollars per year in funding the Green Bank site for 10 years.

It’s a welcome infusion of cash for the site that has been under a financial cloud for several years. Back in 2012, a review committee made a recommendation to the National Science Foundation that they divest their portfolio of the Green Bank Telescope [GBT] in order to free up funding for other projects. Knowing that losing the telescope would be devastating not only to the employees, but also to the county in terms of tourism dollars, the observatory management began the task of searching for other funding. In 2013, the observatory entered into a partnership with WVU to provide 1 million dollars per year for a two year contract, and continued to work with lawmakers and others to secure other funding for the site.

Dr. Beasley said that beginning early next year, the GBT will devote approximately 20 percent of its observing time to searching the heavens for signs of intelligent life via radio signals. Dr. Beasley said he is delighted that the GBT will play a role in answering that age-old question – are we alone in the Universe?

The Parkes Telescope in Australia will also take part in this initiative. Parkes is famous for being one of three telescopes that received the transmission from Apollo 11 in 1969 when Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon. When it was determined that the best picture was coming from their location NASA made the decision to use their transmission exclusively to the delight of millions of television viewers around the world.

Breakthrough Listen will be 50 times more sensitive and cover 10 times more of the sky than previous searches. Optical telescopes will also be part of the initiative, with the Automated Planet Finder Telescope at Lick Observatory in California searching optical laser transmissions. According to the release, if a civilization based around one of the 1000 nearest stars transmits to us with the power of a common aircraft radar, the GBT and Parkes could detect it.

Vast amounts of data will be generated, all of it publicly available. Powerful software will be developed to help sift through the flood of data coming in and all software will be open source.

Breakthrough Listen will also be joining and supporting SETI@home, a University of California, Berkeley distributed computing platform with 9 million volunteers around the world donating their time and computing power to the search. SETI stands for Search for Exterrestrial Intelligence. Collectively they comprise one of the largest supercomputers in the world.

Story By

Heather Niday

Heather is our Program Director and Traffic Manager. She started with Allegheny Mountain Radio as a volunteer deejay. She then joined the AMR staff in February of 2007. Heather grew up in the Richmond, Virginia, area and now lives in Arbovale, West Virginia with her husband Chuck. Heather is a wonderful flute player, and choir director for Arbovale UMC. You can hear Heather along with Chuck on Tuesday nights from 6 to 8pm as they host two hours of jazz on Something Different.

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