Breakthrough Listen to search for intelligent life around weird star

Breakthrough Listen to search for intelligent life around weird star

Tabby's star has provoked so much excitement over the past year, with speculation that it hosts a highly advanced civilization capable of building orbiting megastructures to capture the star's energy, that UC Berkeley's Breakthrough Listen project is devoting hours of time on the Green Bank radio telescope to see if it can detect any signals from intelligent extraterrestrials.

"The Breakthrough Listen program has the most powerful SETI equipment on the planet, and access to the largest telescopes on the planet," said Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and co-director of Breakthrough Listen. "We can look at it with greater sensitivity and for a wider range of signal types than any other experiment in the world. "

Breakthrough Listen, which was created last year with $100 million in funding over 10 years from the Breakthrough Prize Foundation and its founder, internet investor Yuri Milner, won't be the first to search for intelligent life around this star.

"Everyone, every SETI program telescope, I mean every astronomer that has any kind of telescope in any wavelength that can see Tabby's star has looked at it," he said. "It's been looked at with Hubble, it's been looked at with Keck, it's been looked at in the infrared and radio and high energy, and every possible thing you can imagine, including a whole range of SETI experiments. Nothing has been found."

While Siemion and his colleagues are skeptical that the star's unique behavior is a sign of an advanced civilization, they can't not take a look. They've teamed up with UC Berkeley visiting astronomer Jason Wright and Tabetha Boyajian, the assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Louisiana State University for whom the star is named, to observe the star with state-of-the-art instruments the Breakthrough Listen team recently mounted on the 100-meter telescope. Wright is at the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Pennsylvania State University.

The Berkeley SETI Research Center team explains why they want to observe Tabby’s star. Credit: Roxanne Makasdjian and Stephen McNally

The observations are scheduled for eight hours per night for three nights over the next two months, starting Wednesday evening, Oct. 26. Siemion, Wright and Boyajian are traveling to the Green Bank Observatory in rural West Virginia to start the observations, and expect to gather around 1 petabyte of data over hundreds of millions of individual radio channels.

"The Green Bank Telescope is the largest fully steerable radio telescope on the planet, and it's the largest, most sensitive telescope that's capable of looking at Tabby's star given its position in the sky," Siemion said. "We've deployed a fantastic new SETI instrument that connects to that telescope, that can look at many gigahertz of bandwidth simultaneously and many, many billions of different radio channels all at the same time so we can explore the radio spectrum very, very quickly."

The results of their observations will not be known for more than a month, because of the data analysis required to pick out patterns in the radio emissions.

First reported in September 2015 by Boyajian, then a postdoc at Yale University, Tabby's star – more properly called KIC 8462852 – had been flagged by citizen scientists because of its unusual pattern of dimming. These volunteers were looking at stars as part of the internet project Planet Hunters, which allows the public to search for planets around other stars in data taken by NASA's Kepler spacecraft, which has been monitoring 150,000 stars for regular dimming that might indicate a planet had passed in front of it.

But while most such dimming by transiting planets is brief, regular and blocks just 1 or 2 percent of the light of the star, Tabby's star dims for days at a time, by as much as 22 percent, and at irregular intervals.

Andrew Siemion explains how radio telescopes work. Credit: Roxanne Makasdjian and Stephen McNally

While Boyajian speculated in her 2015 paper that the irregular dimming might be explained by a swarm of comets breaking up as it approached the star, subsequent observations show the star, which is located about 1,500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus, is far more irregular than a comet swarm would produce. In fact, it seems to have been dimming at a steady rate for the past century.

Speculation eventually arose that the dimming was caused by a Dyson structure: a massive orbiting array of solar collectors that physicist Freeman Dyson once proposed would be a natural thing for a civilization to build as it needed more and more energy to power itself. Theoretically, such a structure could completely surround the star – what he termed a Dyson sphere – and capture nearly all the star's energy.

How likely is that? "I don't think it's very likely – a one in a billion chance or something like that – but nevertheless, we're going to check it out," said Dan Werthimer, chief scientist at Berkeley SETI. "But I think that ET, if it's ever discovered, it might be something like that. It'll be some bizarre thing that somebody finds by accident … that nobody expected, and then we look more carefully and we say, 'Hey, that's a civilization.'"

Breakthrough Listen is monitoring many other stars using three telescopes that can peer into all segments of the cosmos: the Parkes Telescope in Australia and the Green Bank Telescope to search for radio transmissions, and the Automated Planet Finder at Lick Observatory in California to search for optical laser transmissions.


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Oct 26, 2016
It's possible that a machine singularity would need the kind of power collected by a Dyson swarm, perhaps to communicate with other singularities across the galaxy, or to move it's system to a more safe and secure location.

It would certainly want to clean up its system of asteroids, comets, and errant planetoids, and building a structure with this material to serve a purpose such as energy collection might make sense to it. It might also be a sort of deflector against radiation or interstellar dust?

Oct 26, 2016
Re the deflector idea maybe there's a star nearby about to go supernova -?

Oct 26, 2016
"a massive orbiting array of solar collectors that physicist Freeman Dyson once proposed would be a natural thing for a civilization to build as it needed more and more energy to power itself."

I understand what dyson was getting at ... however can someone explain why we should assume an advanced civilization would need to build a giant array of solar panels.

Isn't that a fairly low tech solution for energy generation?

I am assuming that any sufficiently advanced civilization is using something like zero-point energy or something our small brains haven't thought of yet.

Oct 26, 2016
If you don't mind, please leave us alone, we're busy...

Oct 26, 2016
I am assuming that any sufficiently advanced civilization is using something like zero-point energy or something our small brains haven't thought of yet
Thats actually a pretty good point and so its probably been discussed elsewhere on the net. Maybe youd like to look around.

And maybe somebody here might want to crunch some numbers as to available energy, relative costs, available materials, etc. which I can assume that dyson himself must have included in his initial work.

Not me. I dont crunch numbers.

Oct 26, 2016
Dyson structures and ET tech get the public drooling and thus attract grant funds, but as stated confirming this obscure hypothesis is, "one in a billion." Click-bait sensational articles are a necessary evil in the quest for great science, though. Data is being collected, we are bound to learn something. As far as SETI goes and progress on the search for life in general this will likely teach us what not to look for. Crossing off dead ends is after all an important part of any large scale multidisciplinary research.

Oct 26, 2016
The problem is that there is simply not enough rocky objects in any particular solar system to build anything resembling a Dyson structure. 100,000 kms (15 Earths) by 40,000 kms (6 Earths) or 90 Earths altogether. That's a lot of asteroids and planets towed in and melted down and reconstructed

And then it would be so big that it would have a massive gravitational field so that you couldn't live on it let alone launch space vehicles from it, nor keep it from collapsing into a sphere with a molten interior. etc. etc.

Oct 26, 2016
A Dyson sphere is a nonsense, mainly due to structural issues. But a Dyson Swarm makes a lot of sense, which has been proposed as flying formations made with millions of solar panels flying around the star. During the building stages, independent clouds of them would follow different orbits and densities depending on their different launch windows and different migration patterns to their optimal orbits , which can look like random patterns from our perspective. So it worth keep looking, if we pass through a lucky alignment we could detect some laser or microwave pulses when a cloud of these panels is sending energy to its destination. Maybe the pulses could be in the style of those Borra 234 stars

Oct 27, 2016
@Paulw789: Your turning kms into Earths is pretty weird. Did you take 1 Earth radius = 1 Earth? That doesn't make sense since the structure would probably have a thickness much smaller that the Earth radius. Also, it would be made of a type of matter that is extremely resistant for its mass. I think it was called "unobtainium" by someone once...

And you are forgetting the central star as a source of materials.


Oct 27, 2016
Must be funding time again.

Oct 27, 2016
100 000 km x 40 000 km = 4 000 000 000 sq/km's.

Square kilometers on Earth's surface (including under the oceans) = 510 000 000 sq/km's.

4 000 000 000 / 510 000 000 = 7.84 times Earth's surface area.

Hmmmmm......

Then think of volume....

Ya it might take a lot of materials but not 90 Earth's per se.

Unless it has to be a very special material but then again, would such a civilization have the ability to transmute matter and energy?

Oct 27, 2016
As far as gravitational collapse goes, no doubt the force of gravity, acting on the sphere, would be countered to some extent by the electro magnetic forces pushing the structure outward. As for messages from ET, I suppose the dimming of the star itself could be a message, some code we've yet to decipher.


Oct 27, 2016
Well its easy to see that the dyson sphere is a silly thought-experiment propagated by fraudsters and the misinformed. Searching for a dyson sphere makes no sense.

The idea falls apart just trying to imagine the scale + resources + amount of time needed to complete the smallest of spheres or constellations. All the maths don't add up. There is way too much energy available in other forms to bother with this concept.

The comments regarding funding make me wonder just how prolific of a footing all of the fraudulent scientists have solidified in the mainstream.

IMHO, most of the "science" these days is straight out of an echo chamber at the end of the insanity ward.

Oct 28, 2016
An evolving power hungry civilization would have to get round to exploiting their sun before long as it accounts for most of the mass/energy in any given solar system. And taking advantage of matter being naturally converted into energy would be easier than somehow converting the star's materials into energy by some artificial means.

And I am no longer influenced by the "one size fits all" rants about funding. As if the overwhelming majority of scientists, in every discipline, are corrupt people conducting expensive fraudulent experiments.

This sermon has been preached more often than the lord's prayer and is about as effective .

Oct 28, 2016
The problem is that there is simply not enough rocky objects in any particular solar system to build anything resembling a Dyson structure. 100,000 kms (15 Earths) by 40,000 kms (6 Earths) or 90 Earths altogether. That's a lot of asteroids and planets towed in and melted down and reconstructed... All the maths don't add up. There is way too much energy available in other forms to bother with this concept
You must realize that Dyson, Larry Niven, and many others have already investigated this thoroughly? Why would you think Dyson would propose such a thing without including all the calcs?

And yes all the maths does adds ups.

Oct 28, 2016
An evolving power hungry civilization

At the time when Dyson dreamed this up it looked like there could never be enough power. But today - in the most industrialized nations - the per capita power use has already flatlined (and is even dropping in some cases)

Reason: There's only so much you can do at one time. Example: You can only watch one TV screen 24/7. There's no point to have 5 of them running in your home. Once you have one running 24/7 at superretinal resolution then your power use will only go down when you replace this with more power efficient models. Same for your phone. Same for your computer. Same for your dishwasher, dryer, ... And the same goes for the industry (power costs money. Making the same product with less power increases profits)

There is a limit to what people can consume - and by extension there is a limit to the power hunger of a (local subset of a) civilization

Oct 28, 2016
Well, regardless if you are pro-dyson or not ... the maths don't jive with reality.
I bet the theoretical civ could build a pocket sized zero-point energy device, and mass produce them, for a fraction of the cost and time which would be expended in an attempt to implement a dyson sphere ... let alone the power distribution network that would be needed.

Its a very low tech, silly idea to go to such lengths.

The real problem with science in the last 50 years has been that these scientists surround themselves in an incestuous groupthink bubble, and are intolerant of anyone who disagrees with their cultist ideology.

At least that is the impression I was given at the accredited physics university that I attended.

Oct 28, 2016
@StarWalls
So true. But I can't help preaching to the choir.

Oct 30, 2016
There is a limit to what people can consume - and by extension there is a limit to the power hunger of a (local subset of a) civilization
??? You are unimaginative. Try to imagine what free energy coupled with future tech might bring us. Wall-sized 3D screens. A bugatti in every garage. A flying bugatti in every garage. Personal space shuttles and orbital vacation homes. Vacation homes on ceres.

Consumption per capita has always increased and there's no reason whatsoever to think that future tech wouldn't enable this to continue increasing at accelerating rates.
https://en.m.wiki...sumption

Oct 31, 2016
A few more thoughts; AGW will require large amounts of energy for HVAC, desalination, irrigation. Robotics for pollution remediation, ecosystem restoration, and the replacement of ageing infrastructures ditto.

It will require increasing amounts of energy to secure and transport resources from farther away and deeper in the earth. Entropy alone will take more energy to maintain our current lifestyles, and to improve the lifestyles of third worlders.

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