Breakthrough Listen Adds a New Tool to Its ET-Seeking Arsenal

The search for extraterrestrial life gets a new tool, widening the scope of our lonely search.

The VERITAS Array. (Image courtesy of UC Santa Cruz.)

The VERITAS Array. (Image courtesy of UC Santa Cruz.)

The search for extraterrestrial life has added another tool to its kit as a new telescope array joins the survey for non-Earthlings.

Called the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS), the new array is composed of four 12-meter telescopes tuned to detect Cherenkov light that’s emitted when gamma rays collide with the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Rather than being a standalone tool, VERITAS will join the ongoing Breakthrough Listen project that’ currently observes the million closest stars to Earth hoping to find any laser or radio transmissions from an ET source. VERITAS will aid the Breakthrough program by searching for rapid pulses of laser light that might inadvertently cross paths with Earth.

While the possibility of intercepting an inter-civilization/inter-stellar laser broadcast at random is remote, those funding the search for extraterrestrial life are willing to take chances.

“When it comes to intelligent life beyond Earth, we don’t know where it exists or how it communicates,” says Yuri Milner, founder of the Breakthrough Initiatives. “So our philosophy is to look in as many places, and in as many ways, as we can. VERITAS expands our range of observation even further.”

Although VERITAS is a new entry into the Breakthrough program, the array has been tested and proven to be a capable telescope. In 2016, VERITAS was trained on KIC 8462852, also known as Tabby Star, to determine why the stellar site was dimming at irregular intervals. While some suggested that a Dyson Sphere might have been the culprit for the star’s dimming, VERITAS could not verify that claim, though it was able to rule an ET megastructure out of the dimming equation. 

“Breakthrough Listen is already the most powerful, comprehensive, and intensive search yet undertaken for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth,” says Andrew Siemion, leader of the Listen team. “Now, with the addition of VERITAS, we’re sensitive to an important new class of signals: fast optical pulses. Optical communication has already been used by NASA to transmit high-definition images to Earth from the Moon, so there’s reason to believe that an advanced civilization might use a scaled-up version of this technology for interstellar communication.”