Search for life turns to Proxima b

The search for life outside of Earth is focussing its attentions on our nearest star system.

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Artist’s impression showing the surface of exoplanet Proxima b, with its host star Proxima Centauri on the horizon.
Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Breakthrough Listen, the ten-year initiative to search for extraterrestrial life, has begun focussing its attentions on Proxima b, the Earth-size planet recently discovered orbiting the closest star outside of our Solar System.

The observations were the first of the $100 million project - headed by Professor Stephen Hawking and entrepreneur Yuri Milner - to use the Parkes Radio Telescope in New South Wales, Australia, and followed 14 days of test observations before ‘first light’ was carried out. 

Proxima b was discovered in August 2016 as part of the European Southern Observatory’s Pale Red Dot campaign to study Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our own Sun. The exoplanet is thought to be rocky and cool enough for liquid water to exist on its surface, and therefore could be suitable for supporting life as we know it.

“The chances of any particular planet hosting intelligent life-forms are probably minuscule,” says Andrew Siemion, director of UC Berkeley SETI Research Center. “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 civilisation just 4.2 lightyears away would change everything.”

Proxima b is also the primary target for Breakthrough Starshot, a sister initiative planning to send small spacecraft to nearby stars in the search for life.

“Parkes is one of the most highly cited radio telescopes in the world, with a long list of achievements to its credit, including the discovery of the first ‘fast radio burst’. Parkes’ unique view of the southern sky, and cutting-edge instrumentation, means we have a great opportunity to contribute to the search for extra-terrestrial life,” says Douglas Bock, Director of CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science.

The Parkes Radio Telescope now joins the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the Automated Planet Finder at Lick Observatory in California as part of the Breakthrough Listen Project.

“The addition of Parkes is an important milestone,” says Yuri Milner. “These major instruments are the ears of planet Earth, and now they are listening for signs of other civilizations.”


 

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