For The People

A First For South Africa

MeerKAT to search for alien life

The MeerKAT telescope based in the Carnarvon area is set to join Breakthrough Listen, an international initiative that is seeking signs of intelligent life in the universe. The Northern Cape will now form part of the search for extra –terrestrial life.

According the Breakthrough Listen’s website it is “the largest ever scientific research program aimed at finding evidence of civilizations beyond Earth. The scope and power of the search are on an unprecedented scale: The program includes a survey of the 1,000,000 closest stars to Earth. It scans the centre of our galaxy and the entire galactic plane. Beyond the Milky Way, it listens for messages from the 100 closest galaxies to ours.”

The inclusion of MeerKAT validates South Africa’s internationally recognised expertise and infrastructure in the field of astronomy. The 64-dish MeerKAT radio telescope was inaugurated in July this year as the most sensitive telescope of its kind in the world. It is comprised of 64 dish antennas, looking and listening raptly to the structure of the universe. It is the precursor of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, which after completion will be world’s largest scientific instrument ever. At present the MeerKAT is used for research into cosmic magnetism, galactic evolution, the large-scale structure of the cosmos, dark matter and the nature of transient radio sources. According to the SKA website MeerKAT recently “observed a rare burst of activity from an exotic star, which demonstrated its outstanding capabilities as a new instrument for scientific exploration.”

The co-operation between MeerKAT, The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) and Breakthrough Initiatives was announced on 2 October at the International Astronautical Congress. The founder of the Breakthrough Initiatives, Yuri Milner, applauded MeerKAT’s extraordinary ability to unlock secrets of the unknown universe. “Collaborating with MeerKAT will significantly enhance the capabilities of Breakthrough Listen. This is now a truly global project” Milner stated.

He clarified that the partnership will examine one million individual stars, which are 1 000 times the number of targets in any previous search. He continued that the objective of the collaboration is to focus its observation on ‘techno signatures’ – signals that indicate the presence of technology on an alien world.

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