Categories
GeekWire

A new search for more planets at Alpha Centauri

NEAR instrument at VLT
The NEAR instrument, shown here mounted on one of the telescopes at the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope facility, came into use with ESO’s VISIR imager and spectrometer on May 21. (ESO / NEAR Collaboration Photo)

The European Southern Observatory and the billionaire-backed Breakthrough Watch program say they have achieved first light with a new observing instrument designed to spot super-Earths in Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to our own.

The NEAR instrument, which takes its name from the acronym for “Near Earths in the AlphaCen Region,” has been installed on an 8-meter (26.2-foot) telescope that’s part of ESO’s Very Large Telescope facility in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

NEAR takes advantage of a thermal-infrared coronagraph to block out most of the light coming from the stars in the Alpha Centauri system, a little more than 4 light-years away – including the sunlike stars Alpha Centauri A and B, plus a red dwarf called Proxima Centauri.

Cutting down on that glare makes it easier for an infrared imaging spectrometer known as VISIR to pick up the warm glow of planets orbiting the stars. The upgraded instrumentation, which took three years to develop, should be capable of detecting worlds down to twice the size of Earth.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

AI helps SETI sleuths find more radio bursts

AI seeking ET
Researchers used artificial intelligence to search through data from a radio source, capturing many more fast radio bursts than humans could. (Breakthrough Listen Illustration / Danielle Futselaar)

Researchers at Breakthrough Listen, a multimillion-dollar campaign to seek out signals from alien civilizations, still don’t know exactly what’s causing repeated bursts of radio waves from an distant galaxy — but thanks to artificial intelligence, they’re keeping closer tabs on the source, whatever it turns out to be.

A team led by Gerry Zhang, a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, developed a new type of machine-learning algorithm to comb through data collected a year ago during an observing campaign that used the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia.

The campaign focused on a radio source known as FRB 121102, located in a dwarf galaxy sitting 3 billion light-years away in the constellation Auriga. Astronomers have observed plenty of fast radio bursts over the past decade, each lasting only a few milliseconds. Only FRB 121102 has been found to send out repeated bursts, however.

A number of theories have been proposed to explain the bursts, ranging from interactions involving magnetized neutron stars and black holes to deliberate signaling by advanced civilizations.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

The clock’s ticking for effort to identify Martian life

City on Mars
An artist’s conception shows a Martian city linked to launch pads. (SpaceX via YouTube)

STANFORD, Calif. — NASA has been looking for life on Mars for more than 40 years, but the quest could get a lot more complicated when earthly life arrives en masse, perhaps within the next decade.

“There is a ticking clock now,” Princeton astrobiologist Chris Chyba said at last week’s Breakthrough Discuss conference, conducted at Stanford University.

The issue has the potential to pit scientists like Chyba against rocketeers like SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk, who wants to start sending settlers to Mars by the mid-2020s. When humans and all the supplies they need start arriving by the tons, there’s a risk that their biological signature could overwhelm any faint traces of ancient or modern-day life on the Red Planet.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

Experts weigh hunt for unearthly life in solar system

Carolyn Porco and Enceladus
Planetary scientist Carolyn Porco shows a graphic that compares the size of Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, with the British Isles. (Breakthrough Initiatives Photo)

STANFORD, Calif. — Are there microbes falling in the snows of Enceladus? Could a drone fly to biological hot spots on Titan? Is life floating in the sulfurous clouds of Venus?

All those extraterrestrial locales — plus Mars and Europa — had their turn in the spotlight on Thursday at the third annual Breakthrough Discuss conference on Stanford University’s campus. The gathering was organized by the Breakthrough Initiatives, a program created by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and his wife Julia to spotlight future frontiers in the search for life beyond Earth.

The program is supporting the radio-based search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, through Breakthrough Listen. It’s also backing Breakthrough Starshot, a decades-long campaign aimed at sending blizzards of beam-powered nanoprobes to the Alpha Centauri star system.

This week’s proceedings signal that Breakthrough’s quest will focus broadly on our own solar system as well.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

Alien-hunters take aim at the star next door

European Extremely Large Telescope
The European Extremely Large Telescope is one of the yet-to-be-built observatories that could target the nearest exoplanet, Proxima Centauri b, for direct imaging.. (Credit: ESO)

GUADALAJARA, Mexico – A multimillion-dollar campaign to look for evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations has added telescopic observations of the nearest known exoplanet, Proxima Centauri b, to its agenda.

Last month’s announcement about the detection of Proxima b caused a sensation because scientists said the planet is only a little more massive than Earth, orbiting in the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri, the red dwarf star that’s closest to our own solar system. That put Proxima b at the top of the list of prospects in the search for life beyond the solar system.

It may take a decade or two, but the Breakthrough Prize Foundation says it is looking into the options for direct imaging of Proxima b, a mere 4.3 light-years away,

Get the full story on GeekWire.