Search for aliens intensifies, new techniques announced to determine 'whether we are alone in the universe'

Following the news that scientists discovered a fast radio burst from deep space that is "repeating" every 16 days, experts are increasing their efforts to look for alien life.

Scientists at the SETI Institute announced they are working on new techniques to spot "technosignatures" that could potentially indicate the presence of an advanced civilization. SETI will use the Very Large Array (VLA) telescope in New Mexico for their work and provide data to the search system.

"The SETI Institute will develop and install an interface on the VLA, permitting unprecedented access to the rich data stream continuously produced by the telescope as it scans the sky," said Andrew Siemion, Breakthrough Listen principal investigator and Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI, in a statement. "This interface will allow us to conduct a powerful, wide-area SETI survey that will be vastly more complete than any previous such search."

Artist’s concept of a nearby civilization signaling Earth after observing our planet crossing in front of the sun. Astronomers have now scanned 20 nearby stars in the Earth transit zone in search of such signals. (Credit: UC Berkeley, Breakthrough Listen)

Artist’s concept of a nearby civilization signaling Earth after observing our planet crossing in front of the sun. Astronomers have now scanned 20 nearby stars in the Earth transit zone in search of such signals. (Credit: UC Berkeley, Breakthrough Listen)

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Technosignatures are defined as "potentially detectable signatures and signals of the presence of distant advanced civilizations," according to NASA.

National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) Director Tony Beasley added that as the VLA conducts its normal observations, the new system will allow for additional use cases of the data already being collected.

"Determining whether we are alone in the universe as technologically capable life is among the most compelling questions in science, and NRAO telescopes can play a major role in answering it," Beasley explained.

The news comes as the Breakthrough Listen Initiative released its second data dump earlier this month that, so far, has not found any evidence of extraterrestrial life.

Two petabytes of data were released, including radio emissions from the "plane of the Milky Way Galaxy, the region around its central, 4-million-solar-mass black hole, and observations of the interstellar comet 2I/Borisov," Breakthrough wrote in a separate statement.

Comet 2I/Borisov is the second interstellar object ever discovered  — after Ouamuamua —  and was spotted on Aug. 30, 2019, by astronomer Gennady Borisov. Some scientists have theorized it may be carrying water from beyond the Solar System.

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Included in the new data set is the study of 20 nearby stars that are aligned with the plane of Earth’s orbit, known as the Earth Transit Zone. No technosignatures were discovered, former UC Berkeley undergraduate Sofia Sheikh said in a statement.

"Because I purposely looked at nearby targets, my search was sensitive enough to locate a transmitter on par with the strongest transmitters on Earth," Sheikh explained. "We can infer that there is nothing as strong as our Arecibo telescope beaming a signal toward us."

The raw data has yet to be fully analyzed by researchers — approximately only 20 percent, according to Axios — with Siemion adding the galactic center is of utmost importance for the group.

“It is there that an advanced civilization might somehow harness the energy of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy to signal its existence," Siemion added.

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Israeli-Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, who is backing the $100 million, 10-year Breakthrough Initiative, said that all humanity "could do was speculate" because of the limited amount of data in the search for life outside of Earth.

“Now, as we are getting a lot of data, we can do real science and, with making this data available to [the] general public, so can anyone who wants to know the answer to this deep question," Milner added.

Earlier this month, a fast radio burst (FRB) that repeats a pattern every 16 days was discovered coming from a galaxy 500 million light-years from Earth. Known as FRB 180916.J0158+65, this FRB sends out radio wave bursts for a period of four days, stops for a period of 12 days, then repeats itself. The initial 28 patterns were first observed between September 2018 and October 2019.

It's unknown how common FRBs actually are and why some of them repeat and others do not; most of their origins are also mysterious in nature.

Some researchers have speculated they stem from an extraterrestrial civilization, but others, including SETI, have said that explanation "really doesn't make sense." They come from all over space "and arranging cooperative alien behavior when even one-way communication takes many billions of years seems unlikely — to put it gently," SETI wrote in a September 2019 blog post.

First discovered in 2007, FRBs are relatively new to astronomers. According to ScienceAlert, some of them can generate as much energy as 500 million suns in a few milliseconds.

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