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.
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.
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.
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 created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.