Breakthrough Listen brings ET search to Africa

Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Listen program said it has added the MeerKAT telescope in South Africa to its global effort to listen for signals from an alien intelligence.

First announced in 2015, Breakthrough Listen is an unprecedented $100 million program – backed by Russian high-tech billionaire Yuri Milner – to listen for signals from an alien intelligence. This massive SETI project is already listening via the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and Parkes Telescope in Australia. On October 2, 2018, Breakthrough Listen announced it will also begin listening via the 64 radio dishes of South Africa’s brand new MeerKAT telescope. It made the announcement at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Bremen, Germany, saying it planned to:

… examine a million individual stars – 1,000 times the number of targets in any previous search – in the quietest part of the radio spectrum, monitoring for signs of extraterrestrial technology. With the addition of MeerKAT’s observations to its existing surveys, Listen will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Yuri Milner commented:

Collaborating with MeerKAT will significantly enhance the capabilities of Breakthrough Listen. This is now a truly global project.

Artist’s concept of an extraterrestrial, via Shutterstock.

Russian billionaire Yuri Milner.  Image via

Yuri Milner funds Breakthrough Listen. He was an early investor in Facebook and Twitter and has funded other large endeavors. For example, he has established the largest award in the world in the field of biomedicine and life sciences, called the Breakthrough Prize.

The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) spent part of this year verifying the 64 radio antennas, each 13.5 meters (44 feet) in diameter, of the MeerKAT telescope. SARAO officially inaugurated the telescope in July 2018.

Breakthrough Listen said its involvement:

… adds the capability to search for technosignatures – signals that indicate the presence of technology on an alien world, and hence provide evidence that intelligent life exists elsewhere.

The MeerKAT telescope of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory is a radio telescope consisting of 64 antennas, located in the remote Karoo Desert of South Africa. Image via SARAO.

Scientists and engineers from the University of California, Berkeley SETI Research Center have already installed Breakthrough Listen’s special digital instrumentation (much like that installed at Green Bank) at the MeerKAT telescope. The Breakthrough Listen team said its observations will:

… occur in a commensal mode – at the same time as other astrophysics programs. Using sophisticated processing, Breakthrough Listen scientists will digitally point the telescope at targets of interest.

This means that the Breakthrough Listen instrument at MeerKAT will be operating almost continuously, scanning the skies for signs of intelligent life.

The Green Bank telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia, is another one of the observatories attempting to eavesdrop on aliens with the help of Breakthrough Listen. Using the Breakthrough Listen digital instrumentation at this telescope, astronomers 3 weeks ago announced they’d found 72 more fast radio bursts from a distant galaxy. Photo via NRAO.

Bottom line: Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Listen program has added the new MeerKAT telescope of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory to its global SETI effort.

Deborah Byrd