A powerful radio telescope is now aiding the search for the existence of alien life

Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array telescope's data will now help scientists hunt for technosignatures.
Jijo Malayil
Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array
Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array


The hunt for alien life will get a shot in the arm with one of the world’s most powerful radio telescope arrays joining the mission, situated about 50 miles west of Socorro, New Mexico.

The National Science Foundation’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) will now help gather the information that enables researchers to analyze emissions that only artificial transmitters make, which signals the existence of an advanced civilization far beyond. 

“The VLA is the go-to instrument for radio astronomers, but this is the first time we are using it in a wide-ranging and continuous search for technosignatures,” said Andrew Siemion, Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI at the SETI Institute, in a press release. 

Advanced computing hardware clubbed with the ultra-sensitive telescope

The VLA is an astronomical observatory consisting of 27 antennas spread over 23 miles of desert real estate. Each of these telescopes is 25 meters in diameter and can be rearranged into different configurations to capture radio signals from space. For the last six years, the observatory has been involved in a project known as VLASS (Very Large Array Sky Survey), which aimed at a radio reconnaissance of 80 percent of the sky. Scientists fed a copy of the data into a special receiver sporting very narrow (approximately one hertz wide) channels. 

The receiver, dubbed “COSMIC” – the Commensal Open-Source Multimode Interferometer Cluster- is developed by the SETI Institute in collaboration with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the Breakthrough Listen Initiative. According to the team, signals from an artificially constructed transmitter will contain such narrow bands, and their discovery would indicate the presence of an advanced community. 

"COSMIC operates commensally, which means it works in the background using a copy of the data astronomers are taking for other scientific purposes,” said Paul Demorest, Scientist and Group Lead for VLA/VLBA Science Support at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Researchers say it's an ideal and efficient way to get large amounts of telescope time to search for rare signals.

The COSMIC experiment opens up huge possibilities

The new experiment enables researchers to evaluate a wide variety of transmissions, such as pulsed and transient signals. The team estimates that the number of star systems examined will be approximately ten million.

The COSMIC system has been analyzing signals from the Voyager 1 spacecraft since the beginning of 2023 to verify the "operation of the individual antennas in the array as well as combining their observations to produce a result that clearly shows the carrier and sidebands of the transmissions from the spacecraft." The spacecraft is the farthest human-made object at a current distance of 15 billion miles. 

"The COSMIC system is a fantastic example of using modern general-purpose compute hardware to augment the capabilities of an existing telescope and serves as a testbed for technosignatures research on upcoming radio telescopes such as NRAO's Next Generation VLA," said  Jack Hickish, Founder, Real-Time Radio Systems Ltd.

In association with the ultra-sensitive VLA, COSMIC is expected to be approximately a thousand times more comprehensive than any previous SETI search. Scientists express optimism that "major improvements in the sensitivity and range of exploratory experiments are often rewarded with the detection of a signal." This may be a turning point in our quest to find other intelligent inhabitants of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board