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Project to hunt for alien life adds more than 1,000 new targets

A star (left) and the Large Magellanic Cloud (right) seen by TESS. Photo: NASA/MIT/TESS
A star (left) and the Large Magellanic Cloud (right) seen by TESS. Photo: NASA/MIT/TESS

The Breakthrough Listen project announced it will search for signs of intelligent alien life on planets discovered by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

Why it matters: This collaboration will allow the project to add more than 1,000 possible worlds to its list of SETI targets.

  • “Out of all the exoplanet endeavors, only SETI holds the promise for identifying signs of intelligent life,” TESS’ Sara Seager said in a statement.

Details: Breakthrough Listen is expected to use telescopes around the globe to scan worlds discovered by TESS for radio signals.

  • TESS finds planets by waiting for them to pass between their host star and the telescope, causing a minuscule dip in the star’s light.
  • Because of its detection method, TESS’ planets are seen edge-on, which could be beneficial when hunting for radio waves because signals that “leak” from Earth into space are mostly seen along the planet’s orbital plane.
  • Researchers working with the project will also look at those light curves for “anomalies” to see if perhaps an intelligent society has built a structure around a star that could affect the way its transit looks.

Yes, but: It’s not going to be easy to pick up radio signals from a world circling a star that’s light-years away from Earth.

  • “I think that the chances of just picking up a leaked signal are probably pretty small because none of these stars are really all that close,” NASA's Steve Howell told Axios.
  • However, it would likely be easier to pick up a radio signal purposefully sent out by an alien civilization.

Background: Scientists have yet to find a true Earth twin out there in the universe, and current technology isn’t equipped to do so.

  • Future telescopes, however, should be able to investigate the atmospheres of alien worlds to possibly detect biosignatures like oxygen that would point to life.