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Australia's Parkes telescope joins the search for alien life

The Parkes telescope will be a heavy hitter for Breakthrough Listen, a project dedicated to searching the sky for alien transmissions.

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In this Oct. 9, 2007 file photo, radio telescopes of the Allen Telescope Array are seen in Hat Creek, Calif.

Ben Margot/AP/File

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The latest tool in the hunt for extraterrestrial life is the Parkes Radio Telescope, located in New South Wales, Australia. The powerful observatory is expected to be a major asset for Breakthrough Listen, a $100-million project designed to comb the sky for transmissions from intelligent life. The decade-long project is sponsored by a number of notable scientists, including famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who are hailing the project as the most comprehensive survey in search of alien civilizations to date.

The Parkes telescope has a long and storied history associated with scientific advancement in space-related matters. Built in 1961, the radio telescope was used to receive a live TV signal from the first moon landing on July 20, 1969. The 210-foot-wide (64-meter-wide) dish is operated by Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO).

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"The Parkes Radio Telescope is a superb instrument, with a rich history," Pete Worden, the chairman of Breakthrough Prize Foundation and executive director of the Breakthrough Initiatives, said in a statement. "We're very pleased to be collaborating with CSIRO to take Listen to the next level."

The telescope is already being put to good use. On Monday, the research team turned the dish towards Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our sun at only 4.2 light years away. Earlier this year, astronomers discovered a potentially habitable planet orbiting the nearby star, as Eva Botkin-Kowacki reported for The Christian Science Monitor:

The Earth-like world is about 1.3 times the mass of our planet and orbits its parent star within a range that would make it not too hot and not too cold for liquid water to exist on its surface. 

Unlike Earth, Proxima b orbits remarkably close to its host star, Proxima Centauri. Only 4.4 million miles separate the two, making Proxima b more than 20 times closer to its star than Earth is to our sun. At such a distance Earth would be hot, hot, hot, but as a red dwarf star, Proxima Centauri is a much cooler and smaller star than our sun. And with such a tight orbit, Proxima b takes just 11.2 days to revolve around its star.

Known exoplanets that could be in the habitable zone for life to develop are a prime target for Breakthrough Listen.

"The chances of any particular planet hosting intelligent life-forms are probably minuscule," Andrew Siemion, the director of the University of California, Berkeley's SETI Research Center, said in the statement. "But once we knew there was a planet right next door, we had to ask the question, and it was a fitting first observation for Parkes. To find a civilization just 4.2 light years away would change everything."

Breakthrough Listen is being funded by Yuri Milner, a Silicon Valley investor. The program will survey the million stars closest over the Earth over the next ten years, and examine the 100 closest galaxies to the Milky Way.

"We believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth, so in an infinite universe, there must be other occurrences of life," Dr. Hawking said at the Royal Society in London in July 2015, when Breakthrough Listen was first announced. "Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps intelligent life might be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean. Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos, unseen beacons announcing that, here on one rock, the universe discovered its existence? Either way, there is no better question. It's time to commit to finding the answer, to search for life beyond Earth."