Breakthrough Listen Launches New Optical Search with Arizona’s VERITAS Telescope Array
Four 12-meter telescopes to search for nanosecond flashes of light from extraterrestrial civilizations.
San Francisco – July 17, 2019 – Breakthrough Listen – the initiative to find signs of intelligent life in the universe – announced today a new collaboration between Breakthrough Listen and the VERITAS Collaboration1 in the search for technosignatures, signs of technology developed by intelligent life beyond the Earth. Joining Listen’s ongoing radio frequency survey and spectroscopic optical laser survey, VERITAS (the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System) will search for pulsed optical beacons with its array of four 12-meter telescopes at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Amado, Arizona.
VERITAS is the world’s most powerful telescope array for studying high energy astrophysics with gamma rays. It detects gamma rays coming from space by looking for the extremely brief flashes of blue “Cherenkov” light they create when they hit the top of the Earth’s atmosphere.
VERITAS will look for pulsed optical beacons with durations as short as several nanoseconds. Over such timescales, artificial beacons could easily outshine any stars that lie in the same direction on the sky. The use of all four telescopes simultaneously allows for very effective discrimination against false positive detections. The VERITAS Collaboration has previously published observations of the mysteriously dimming Boyajian’s Star in search of such optical pulses2. The new program of VERITAS observations will provide complementary searches for optical pulse signatures of many more stars from the primary Breakthrough Listen star list.
“When it comes to intelligent life beyond Earth, we don’t know where it exists or how it communicates,” said Yuri Milner, founder of the Breakthrough Initiatives. “So our philosophy is to look in as many places, and in as many ways, as we can. VERITAS expands our range of observation even further.”
Breakthrough Listen’s search for optical technosignatures with VERITAS will be led by Prof. David Williams of the Santa Cruz Institute for Particle Physics and Department of Physics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Prof. Jamie Holder of the Department of Physics and the Bartol Research Institute at the University of Delaware, in collaboration with the Listen team at the University of California, Berkeley’s SETI Research Center (BSRC), led by Dr. Andrew Siemion.
“Breakthrough Listen is already the most powerful, comprehensive, and intensive search yet undertaken for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth,” noted Dr. Siemion. “Now, with the addition of VERITAS, we’re sensitive to an important new class of signals: fast optical pulses. Optical communication has already been used by NASA to transmit high definition images to Earth from the Moon, so there’s reason to believe that an advanced civilization might use a scaled-up version of this technology for interstellar communication.”
“Using the huge mirror area of the four VERITAS telescopes will allow us to search for these extremely faint optical flashes in the night sky, which could correspond to signals from an extraterrestrial civilization,” remarked Prof. Holder.
If a laser comparable to the most powerful lasers on Earth (delivering about 500 terawatts in a pulse lasting a few nanoseconds) were situated at the distance of Boyajian’s Star and pointed in our direction, VERITAS could detect it. But most of the stars in the Listen target list are a factor of 10 – 100 times closer than Boyajian’s Star, meaning that the new search will be sensitive to pulses a factor 100 – 10,000 times fainter still.
“It is impressive how well-suited the VERITAS telescopes are for this project, since they were built only with the purpose of studying very-high-energy gamma rays in mind,” observed Prof. Williams.
Breakthrough Listen is a scientific program in search for evidence of technological life in the Universe. It aims to survey one million nearby stars, the entire galactic plane and 100 nearby galaxies at a wide range of radio and optical bands.
The Breakthrough Initiatives are a suite of scientific and technological programs, founded by Yuri Milner, investigating life in the Universe. Along with Breakthrough Listen, they include Breakthrough Watch, an optical search for Earth-like planets in the habitable zones of nearby stars; and Breakthrough Starshot, the first significant attempt to design and develop a space probe capable of reaching another star.
Yuri Milner founded DST Global, which has become one of the world’s leading technology investors and its portfolio has included some of the world's most prominent internet companies, such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Airbnb, Spotify, Alibaba, and others.
Yuri lives in Silicon Valley with his family. He graduated in 1985 with an advanced degree in theoretical physics and subsequently conducted research in quantum field theory. Yuri and his wife Julia have partnered with Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Pony Ma, and Anne Wojcicki to fund the Breakthrough Prizes – the world’s largest scientific awards, honoring important, primarily recent, achievements in Fundamental Physics, Life Sciences and Mathematics. In July 2015, together with Stephen Hawking, Yuri launched the $100 million Breakthrough Listen initiative to reinvigorate the search for extraterrestrial intelligence in the Universe; and in April 2016 they launched Breakthrough Starshot – a $100 million research and engineering program seeking to develop a technology for interstellar travel.
VERITAS (the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System) is a ground-based array of four, 12-m optical reflectors for gamma-ray astronomy located at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Amado, Arizona. VERITAS detects gamma rays via the extremely brief flashes of blue Cherenkov light they create when they are absorbed in the Earth’s atmosphere.
VERITAS is supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, the U.S. National Science Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution, and by NSERC in Canada.
The VERITAS Collaboration consists of about 80 scientists from 20 institutions in the United States, Canada, Germany and Ireland.
For more information about VERITAS visit veritas.sao.arizona.edu.