Southern hemisphere’s largest radio telescope joins search for extraterrestrial tech

MeerKAT will increase the number of targets that Breakthrough Listen can observe by a thousand fold.

Danielle Futselaar / Breakthrough Listen / SARAO

The largest radio telescope in the southern hemisphere has joined the search for technosignatures, signals that indicate the presence of technology developed by extraterrestrial intelligence. A new instrument utilized by the MeerKAT radio telescope, which is in a remote region of South Africa, will increase the number of targets that Breakthrough Listen can observe by a factor of 1,000.

A team of engineers and astronomers involved with Listen, an initiative that's seeking signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life, spent three years working on the instrument, which is said to be the most powerful equipment ever deployed to aid the search for technosignatures. The instrument is integrated with MeerKAT's control and monitoring systems.

Listen is already employing the Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in West Virginia, the Parkes Telescope in Australia and others in its hunt for technosignatures. What's different about MeerKAT is that there's no need to physically move its antennas. Its 64 dishes can monitor an area of the sky 50 times larger than what GBT can view at once.

“Such a large field of view typically contains many stars that are interesting technosignature targets," Listen principal investigator Dr. Andrew Siemion said in a statement. "Our new supercomputer enables us to combine signals from the 64 dishes to get high resolution scans of these targets with excellent sensitivity, all without impacting the research of other astronomers who are using the array.”

Along with being able to monitor a larger area of the sky at a given time, the ability to scan 64 objects at once will help Listen to detect and dismiss interfering signals from spacecraft launched by humans, such as satellites. One of the first targets that the new instrument will observe is Alpha Centauri. In 2020, Listen detected an odd radio signal coming from Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our sun and a member of the Alpha Centauri system.

“It will take us just two years to search over one million nearby stars," Listen project scientist Dr. Cherry Ng said. "MeerKAT will provide us with the ability to detect a transmitter akin to Earth’s brightest radio beacons out to a distance of 250 light years in our routine observing mode.”