Where the vast infinite darkness of space is generally thought to be silent, scientists such as Rebecca Barrett are keeping their ears out for artificial radio signals which would indicate the presence of extraterrestrial intelligence, known as technosignatures.
Barrett has a keen interest in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and believes without question that there is life out there to be found.
“The universe is vast and contains more planets than the human mind can comprehend. We simply cannot be the only ones, and I will happily spend my life trying to prove it,” she said.
Barrett works with Breakthrough Listen, a University of California, Berkely-based program with a focus on SETI observation and analysis. The program, which is the largest of its kind internationally works in partnership with the biggest and best telescopes found worldwide.
The program will cost a total of US$100 million and last 10 years, during which it will scan the closest one million stars to Earth and will launch radio surveys that cover “10 times more of the sky than previous programs”.
Barrett specifically, is looking to detect radio signals from exoplanets — planets which orbit a star outside the solar system, suggesting a greater likelihood of habitability.
“I’m analysing data from a subset of 25 stars observed using Australia’s CSIRO ‘Murriyang’ radio telescope,” says Barrett.
“Each of these stars has at least one candidate or confirmed exoplanet whose orbital path took it behind its host star during observation, in what is called ‘secondary transit’.
“Exoplanets are a hot topic in modern astronomy, and game theory would suggest that other intelligent civilisations would be equally interested in the discovery and analysis of planets in other stellar systems.
“By analysing targets in secondary transit, I can explore the idea that if a continuous radio signal was being transmitted from an exoplanet, that it would pause and resume as the planet moves behind its host star and re-emerges on the other side.”
Barrett has collected and sorted a list of roughly 60,000 observations made by Breakthrough Listen at Parkes Observatory in NSW.
“The next step will be to run an algorithm called turboSETI on approximately 3,500 data files totalling 20 terabytes from these observations,” she said.
“This algorithm will flag signals based on a set of custom, programmed parameters — an intensive process that will require about 300 hours of computing time using Breakthrough Listen’s high-powered compute nodes located at UC Berkeley.
“Flagged signals, or ‘events’, will then be visually inspected as a set of stacked spectrograms (aka waterfall plots) for signals-of-interest originating from the observed exoplanet.
Alongside this, Barrett is set to pursue a PhD in astrophysics.
Liam McAneny is a journalist who has written and edited for his University International Relations journal. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (International Relations) and Bachelor of Laws from the University of Wollongong in 2021. He joined Momentum Media in 2022 and currently writes for SpaceConnect and Australian Aviation. Liam has a keen interest in geopolitics and international relations as well as astronomy.
Send Liam an email at: [email protected]
Receive the latest developments and updates on Australia’s space industry direct to your inbox. Subscribe today to Space Connect here.