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Astronomers Start Search For Alien Life

May 15, 2011

US astronomers said Friday that they are now listening to the skies for the existence of ETs, using a massive radio telescope in West Virginia to scan for signs of alien life on 86 possible Earth-like planets in the heavens above.

The giant dish began pointing toward each of the planets this week and will gather 24 hours of data on each one. The 86 planets were gleaned from a list of 1,235 planets identified by NASA’s Kepler space telescope.

“It’s not absolutely certain that all of these stars have habitable planetary systems, but they’re very good places to look for ET,” University of California at Berkeley graduate student Andrew Siemion told AFP.

The new mission is part of the SETI project — Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence — which launched in the 1980s.

SETI announced last month that it was shutting down a major part of its project — the Allen Telescope Array (ATA), which consisted of 42 telescope dishes — due to budget shortfalls.

ATA began in 2007 and was operated in part by UC Berkeley Radio Astronomy Lab, which has hosted several generations of experiments. ATA was funded by the SETI Institute and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Now, astronomers are hoping the powerful Green Bank Telescope will provide valuable information about potential life-supporting planets.

“Our search employs the largest fully steerable radio telescope on the planet, and the most sensitive radio telescope in the world capable of undertaking a SETI search of this kind,” said Siemion. “We will be looking at a much wider range of frequencies and signal types than has ever been possible before.”

The surface of the telescope is 328 by 360 feet and can record nearly one gigabyte of data per second, Siemion added.

The 8,500-ton telescope became operational in 2000 and is a project of the NSF’s National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

“We’ve picked out the planets with nice temperatures — between zero and 100 degrees Celsius — because they are a lot more likely to harbor life,” said physicist Dan Werthimer, who heads a SETI project in Puerto Rico.

He said the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico could not be used to observe the same area of the northern sky as the Green Bank Telescope can. “With Arecibo, we focus on stars like our Sun, hoping that they have planets around them that emit intelligent signals,” he said in a statement.

The Green Bank Telescope can scan 300 times the range of frequencies that Arecibo could, meaning that it can collect the same amount of data in one day that Arecibo could in one year.

Astronomers said the project will take about one year to complete, and will employ the aid of nearly a million at-home astronomers, known as SETI@ home users, who will help process the data on their personal computers.

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