Campus Breakthrough Listen Project scans Tabby’s star for evidence of extraterrestrial life

Originally published on October 26, 2016 for The Daily Californian

Searching for evidence of extraterrestrial life, UC Berkeley’s Breakthrough Listen Project began using the Green Bank radio telescope Wednesday night to collect data on an anomalous star.

Last year, Tabetha Boyajian, a Yale postdoc researcher at the time, published a study revealing that Tabby’s star, also referred to as Boyajian’s star, experienced irregular dips in brightness of up to 20 percent. The Breakthrough Listen Project will use a large, sensitive telescope to detect radio transmissions near the star, which could indicate the existence of extraterrestrial life, according Andrew Siemion, co-director of the project.

“Basically, something is passing in front of the star, causing (it) to dim and we don’t know what it is,” said Jason Wright, the experiment’s principal investigator.

Astronomer at Carnegie Observatories Josh Simon studied Tabby’s star from 2009 to 2013 and found that it faded about 3 percent in brightness over this period.

“We looked at many other stars observed by the Kepler telescope and didn’t find any others that were behaving this way,” Simon said.

Wright has hypothesized that the dimming could be because of megastructures — built by advanced alien civilizations to collect solar energy — that block the light emitting from star.

Lead researchers on the project, however, admit that there is little chance of finding extraterrestrial life around the star.

“Just the suggestion of such an explanation, alien megastructures, attracted a huge amount of attention to this discovery,” Simon said. “(But) the probability of finding extraterrestrial life around this star is very low. Nevertheless, of all the stars that you could look at, this is probably the best bet.”

In addition to Tabby’s star, members of the Breakthrough Listen Project plan on surveying a million other nearby stars and 100 other galaxies. The team will scan Tabby’s star for a total of 25 hours this semester, according to Siemion. The project — slated to receive $100 million over 10 years — began in July 2015 and is conducted in partnership with UC Berkeley’s Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, Research Center.

Chief Scientist of the Berkeley SETI Center Dan Werthimer explained that the experiment operates on the reasoning that a potential alien civilization may use similar technologies to those used on Earth. He added that humans pollute space with radio, television and radar signals, so the researchers hypothesize that if similar signals are found near the star, it might suggest the existence extraterrestrial life in the surrounding area.

“We don’t know how much life is out there or how many civilizations are out there,” Werthimer said. “(A discovery) could be tonight but more likely (it will take) hundreds or a thousand years.”

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