Ask a hundred people why they like to escape to the forest and you’ll probably get a hundred reasons, but chances are good that more than a few will say they seek the peace and quiet of the woods. And while the woods can be a raucous place between the wildlife and the human visitors, it is indeed a world apart from a busy city street, at least in the audio frequencies. But on the EM spectrum, most forests are nearly as noisy as your average cube farm, and that turns out to be a huge problem if you happen to run exquisitely sensitive radio receivers.
Like so many aspects of our contemporary technological life, the NRQZ can trace its roots all the way back to the Cold War era. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and started the Space Race, the US was far behind and knew it. Playing catch-up involved building all the infrastructure needed to support a space-faring culture, and radio astronomy was a big part of those early efforts. Finding a convenient place to build that infrastructure that was not subject to a lot of interference was an imperative.
The $100 million initiative to find signs of intelligent life in the universe – is releasing initial observational datasets to the world, Breakthrough Initiatives announced today.
January 2016 saw ‘first light’ for Breakthrough Listen, with observations marking the start of the 10-year effort announced in July 2015 at London’s Royal Society by Yuri Milner, Stephen Hawking, Lord Martin Rees, Ann Druyan, and Frank Drake. Hundreds of hours of observations have taken place using the Green Bank Radio Telescope in West Virginia and Lick Observatory’s Automated Planet Finder in Mt. Hamilton, California.
Today Breakthrough Listen is releasing the first batch of data for public access at the Breakthrough Initiatives website. Data from the Green Bank Telescope is also available to users of UC Berkeley’s SETI@home software.
Observations made so far by Breakthrough Listen include most of the stars within 16 light years of Earth (including stars such as 51 Pegasi that are known to host extra-solar planets), and a sample of stars between 16 and 160 light years away. This included nearby sun-like and giant stars as well as numerous binary stars. The search also targeted around 40 of the nearest spiral galaxies, including members of the Maffei Group in the direction of the constellation Cassiopeia. Stars within 16 light years accessible only from the Southern Hemisphere, such as Alpha Centauri, will be observed by the end of the year with the Parkes Telescope.
Since January, scientists taking part in a $100 million, 10-year search for extraterrestrial intelligence have used Pocahontas County’s Green Bank Telescope to search the 200 stars nearest Earth for radio signals bearing clues of the possible presence of other civilizations.
The search, called Project Breakthrough Listen, was announced last July by Russian billionaire and space philanthropist Yuri Milner and renowned cosmologist Stephen Hawking.
The announcement that Breakthrough Listen observations are underway came during a news conference in New York on Tuesday, during which Milner and Hawking announced the launch of Breakthrough Starshot, another $100 million space research initiative funded by Milner’s Breakthrough Foundation. The new initiative provides funding to design, engineer and demonstrate the feasibility of developing a fleet of miniature, robotic, light-powered “nanocraft” to explore beyond our solar system and check for signs of life in the neighboring Alpha Centauri star system, 4.37 light years distant.
For years, Green Bank has been known as the Quiet Zone but thanks to AT&T some parts are about to get loud.
Green Bank West Virginia is home to the world’s largest steerable telescope and it’s located at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Pocahontas County. For more than 20 years, the enormous telescope has prevented residents and vacationers at Snowshoe Mountain Resort to function without the use of cell service.
“The GBT is huge, it’s 2.3 acres of collecting area. If you want to think about it, it means you can pick up the entire Mountaineers Stadium and stick it right inside the dish,” said Dr. Karen O’Neil, the observatory’s site director. “The Green Bank Telescope is an astronomical instrument. We use it to go out, we use it to look up at the sky and to try to understand the big questions of how did we get here, and to really understand how galaxies formed and how the universe form and how we formed.”
Given scientists’ current understanding of how often galaxies merge, limits point to fewer detectable pairs of supermassive black holes than previously expected.
On the heels of their participation in the historic research that resulted in the detection of gravitational waves, West Virginia University (WVU) astrophysicists continue to plow new ground and build upon their work.
WVU scientists were members of the LIGO team that detected gravitational waves from merging pairs of black holes approximately 29 to 36 times the mass of the Sun, confirming that distortions in the fabric of space-time can be observed and measured.
WVU scientists are also continuing to make discoveries about the universe as members of North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav), which has spent the past decade searching for low-frequency gravitational waves emitted by pairs of black holes with masses many millions of times larger than those seen by LIGO.