The Very Large Array will search for evidence of extraterrestrial life

The Very Large Array (VLA) is a collection of 27 radio antennas located at the NRAO site in Socorro, New Mexico. Each antenna in the array measures 25 meters (82 feet) in diameter and weighs about 230 tons.
The Very Large Array (VLA) is a collection of 27 radio antennas located at the NRAO site in Socorro, New Mexico. Each antenna in the array measures 25 meters (82 feet) in diameter and weighs about 230 tons. Alex Savello/NRAO

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is getting a boost through a collaboration that will use existing radio telescopes to search for indicators of life elsewhere in the universe.

A new collaboration has been announced between the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and the SETI Institute, to add SETI capabilities to the NRAO’s radio telescopes. To begin the project, an interface will be added to the NRAO’s Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico to search for events or structures which could indicate the presence of life, such as laser beams, structures built around stars, indications of constructed satellites, or atmospheric chemicals produced by industry.

“The SETI Institute will develop and install an interface on the VLA permitting unprecedented access to the rich data stream continuously produced by the telescope as it scans the sky,“ Andrew Siemion, Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI at the SETI Institute and Principal Investigator for the Breakthrough Listen Initiative at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a statement. “This interface will allow us to conduct a powerful, wide-area SETI survey that will be vastly more complete than any previous such search.”

As well as adding the new interface, the data collected by the VLA will be analyzed for signs of life. “As the VLA conducts standard observations, this new system will allow for an additional and important use for the data we’re already collecting,” NRAO Director Tony Beasley said in the statement. “Determining whether we are alone in the universe as technologically capable life is among the most compelling questions in science, and NRAO telescopes can play a major role in answering it.”

With the discovery of more and more exoplanets, having access to a powerful instrument like the VLA gives researchers the opportunity to search further than ever before. “Having access to the most sensitive radio telescope in the northern hemisphere for SETI observations is perhaps the most transformative opportunity yet in the history of SETI programs,” said Bill Diamond, President and CEO of the SETI Institute. “We are delighted to have this opportunity to partner with NRAO, especially as we now understand the candidate pool of relevant planets numbers in the billions.”

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