Scientists Ask Public to Help Sift Through Galactic Data in Search for Life

(CN) – Scientists are doubling down on efforts to encourage more galactic discoveries – including of extraterrestrial intelligent life – through new research partnerships and by releasing troves of data from space for the public to scour through.

Researchers revealed Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science several new efforts to promote continued breakthroughs in the vast scientific arena that is our understanding of the universe. While these efforts are varied and wide-ranging, they are all in pursuit of answering the key questions that continue to elude astronomers: What planets and stars remain undiscovered in nearby galaxies, and is humanity truly alone in the universe.

SETI
The National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array in Socorro, New Mexico. (user:Hajor [CC BY-SA])
One crucial element of these efforts is the newly announced partnership between the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI). The groups will kick off with a fresh program that will allow SETI to utilize state-of-the-art radio telescopes operated by NRAO that can monitor “technosignatures” from space with unprecedent access.

These technosignatures, constructed from a complex network of radio signals, can give researchers a drastically improved glimpse into the chemical and biological details of the universe, providing data on anything from the chemical makeup of a planet’s atmosphere to foreign structures orbiting celestial bodies.

Researchers, however, have no intention of hoarding the data. Another announcement made Friday from the Breakthrough Listen Initiative revealed that data already gathered from a series of strategically placed telescopes around the world, such as the Parkes radio telescope in New South Wales, Australia, and the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, will be released to the public at large.

This announcement will result in two petabytes of cosmic related data – roughly the equivalent of one trillion pages worth of information.

Scientists hope that this data release, which will be the largest data release about universal discovery in history, will encourage everyday people to comb through this massive data pile and mobilize as many interested minds as possible towards future cosmic discoveries.

Matt Lebofsky, lead system administrator for the Breakthrough Listen Initiative, says the data release can only help in the pursuit of universal knowledge – and that there is no telling where it may lead.

“Breakthrough Listen is excelling on all these fronts, making this ever-growing data set one of the richest and most exciting not only in the quest to discover extraterrestrial intelligence, but in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics in general,” Lebofsky said in an email.

“It is certainly a challenge to analyze such huge volumes,” Lebofsky continued. “As our own technology and analysis techniques improve, we may find technosignatures hidden in on our disk drives that were overlooked before – this kind of data bears repeated visits, and the ideas and eyeballs of the public at large can only help! Even if we don’t find ET soon colleagues in related sciences have already used our data to study natural phenomena and further our understanding of the physical universe. And as our insight into the universe grows sharper, hints shall be revealed of where fellow intelligent life may exist.”

To illustrate the practicality of these efforts and what they accomplish, researchers detailed how these tools can examine a certain section of Earth’s sky that could hold significant potential for discovery. It is window-like perspective from Earth that is perfectly lined up with nearly two dozen other stars, and it is through this window that we may be able look at far-away life – just as they could be looking right back at us.

Sofia Sheikh, who led these efforts, says that while these observations did not result in any noteworthy revelations, such as discovery of extraterrestrials, the doors they open has tremendous potential in the long run.

“My part in this announcement was the data analysis from the first ever targeted search of the Earth Transit Zone (ETZ), which is a special region of the sky from which extraterrestrial observers might have a greater chance of detecting the Earth (because of its alignment with the sun),” Sheikh said in an email. “While we did not detect any alien signals, this search was more of a ‘proof of concept’ for searching this special region of the sky. I observed 20 nearby stars in the ETZ, but there are still thousands of stars (and different frequencies!) to search in this region.”

Sheikh says although the future of space discovery is promising, we must remember the complexity of the issue at hand and the impossible-to-grasp size of the universe – despite how excited many are at the prospect of unraveling the many mysteries that await humanity in the expanse of space.

“SETI searches are like any other kind of science: they have to be rigorous and peer-reviewed, they take a long time, and we have to make sure we go about the search in a methodical manner while documenting what we’ve already covered,” Sheikh said. “Space is huge, and the parameter space is only larger still! But we’re chipping away at the question, one small search at a time, with tools and technology and amounts of data that humanity has never tried before.”

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