October 16, 2016

Breakthrough Listen Project will follow up on possible Alien laser beacon detections but think it is most likely instrument or analysis error

Breakthrough Listen at UC Berkeley will conduct follow up observations of reported anomalous spectral features (234 stars out of 2.5 million with unusual light emissions observed by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS)) in solar type stars.

It is too early to unequivocally attribute these purported signals to the activities of extraterrestrial civilizations. Internationally agreed-upon protocols for searches for evidence of advanced life beyond Earth (SETI) require candidates to be confirmed by independent groups using their own telescopes, and for all natural explanations to be exhausted before invoking extraterrestrial agents as an explanation. Careful work must be undertaken to determine false positive rates, to rule out natural and instrumental explanations, and most importantly, to confirm detections using two or more independent telescopes.

Peaks in Fourier analysis of stellar spectra, such as those discussed by Borra and Trottier, can be caused by instrumental optics or introduced during data reduction. Data artifacts, fringing, and inconsistencies in the manufacture of detectors are known to users of high resolution spectrographs to cause minute patterns to appear in the resulting spectra. The movement of the telescope, variations in observing conditions, and the process of wavelength calibration can easily introduce undesired signals at levels that are only barely detectable. It is therefore important to check the claimed signal using a different telescope and instrument.

The Berkeley SETI Research Center (BSRC) team has added several stars from the Borra and Trottier sample to the Breakthrough Listen observing queue on the 2.4-meter Automated Planet Finder (APF) optical telescope. The capabilities of the APF spectrograph are well matched to those of the original detection, and these independent follow-up observations will enable us to verify or refute the reported detections. they look forward to consulting with Professor Borra and his team on these observations, as well as additional follow up investigations using other data sources.

Automated Planet Finder

The Automated Planet Finder is the first telescope capable of detecting rocky planets that might support life in other solar systems. Extrasolar planetary research has been very successful at Lick Observatory.

By operating robotically on every clear night of the year, the APF is efficient in discovering extrasolar planets. The Levy spectrometer has cutting-edge components and higher resolution, which increases astronomers' ability to detect these planets.

APF consists of a 2.4-meter automated telescope and enclosure, and the high-resolution Levy spectrograph. The telescope and spectrograph operates robotically every night, like the KAIT. APF targets a preprogrammed list of nearby stars and observes them every night for months, in search of rocky planets with very low masses, similar to Earth. The ultimate goal of extrasolar planet research is to find planets like Earth that may support life.

The sensitive Levy spectrograph is optimized for speed and radial velocity precision. It detects velocity changes in each star's movement down to 1 meter per second, equivalent to human walking speed. This change in a star's velocity could indicate that planets are pulling on the star with their gravitational forces. Since the spectrograph detects the smallest possible velocity changes, planets of lowest possible mass can be detected. This enables astronomers to find small rocky earthlike planets. Spectrographic data is fed into an extrasolar planet data pipeline, which astronomers then analyze to discover new planets.

Alien detection scale

The international SETI community has established a 0 to 10 scale for quantifying detections of phenomena that may indicate the existence of advanced life beyond the Earth called the “Rio Scale.” The BSRC team assesses the Borra-Trottier result to currently be a 0 or 1 (None/Insignificant) on this scale. If the signal were to be confirmed with another independent telescope, its significance would rise, though an exhaustive analysis of other possible explanations, including instrumental phenomena, must be performed before supporting the hypothesis that artificially generated pulses are responsible for the claimed signal.

Breakthrough Listen is the largest ever scientific research program aimed at finding evidence of civilizations beyond Earth. The scope and power of the search are on an unprecedented scale:

The program includes a survey of the 1,000,000 closest stars to Earth. It scans the center of our galaxy and the entire galactic plane. Beyond the Milky Way, it listens for messages from the 100 closest galaxies to ours.

The instruments used are among the world’s most powerful. They are 50 times more sensitive than existing telescopes dedicated to the search for intelligence.

The radio surveys cover 10 times more of the sky than previous programs. They also cover at least 5 times more of the radio spectrum – and do it 100 times faster. They are sensitive enough to hear a common aircraft radar transmitting to us from any of the 1000 nearest stars.

They are also carrying out the deepest and broadest ever search for optical laser transmissions. These spectroscopic searches are 1000 times more effective at finding laser signals than ordinary visible light surveys. They could detect a 100 watt laser (the energy of a normal household bulb) from 25 trillion miles away

The initiative will span 10 years and commit a total of $100,000,000.

Arxiv - Discovery of peculiar periodic spectral modulations in a small fraction of solar type stars (57 pages)

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