Scientists are combing the sky in search of intelligent life in the universe and that attempt has been boosted by the Breakthrough Listen initiative, which is the largest attempt to detect alien communications and technologies.
The project is scanning 1 million stars within the galaxy and listening "for messages from the 100 closest galaxies to ours" as part of its search for signs of alien civilizations. But this survey may actually be able to capture signs of aliens in even more remote locations — such as galaxies that may appear in the background of images taken of stars in the Milky Way.
And while these extragalactic objects may not be the main targets of Breakthrough Listen, they could help constrain "the prevalence of very powerful extraterrestrial transmitters," two scientists noted in a new study.
"I think for a while we’ve realized that when we make a SETI observation with a radio telescope, we are sensitive to not only the target star in the center of the field but also a patch of sky about the size of the moon — so that means we could potentially detect a signal from other objects in the field," said Michael Garrett, who is the Sir Bernard Lovell chair of astrophysics at the University of Manchester and the director of the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, according to Vice.
He co-authored the study along with Andrew Siemion, the director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and the principal investigator for Breakthrough Listen.
"Other objects in the field include foreground stars and background stars in our own Milky Way," Garrett continued. "Until recently, we didn't know how to make use of this fact because we didn’t know the distance to these stars."
Filling in that critical information gap over recent years is a space telescope called Gaia, which the European Space Agency launched in 2013. By measuring the positions, distances and motions of about one billion astronomical objects, the Gaia mission has enabled scientists to measure distances to a few billion stars in the Milky Way.
Garrett and Siemion noted how Gaia could aid the search for intelligent life in a previous study. This included technological signals that might originate millions of light years beyond the stars the initiative was studying. As Vice explained, "these signals are akin to astronomical photobombs, or Easter eggs, that could get overlooked in the data because they are not the primary observational targets."
Garrett and Siemion discovered that "wherever you point your telescope, the field of view is going to include some interesting cosmic object."
"I’m not sure all SETI researchers had a feel for that, so we decided to look at 400 of the Breakthrough Listen target fields and just see what was in them — that was a lot of fun because the fields are very pretty and you can see some exciting things — like interacting galaxies," Garrett said.
Contained within this "astronomical exotica" could be traces of alien technosignatures — or detectable signs of advanced civilizations — and speculative technologies might just be able to detect these extragalactic transmitters.
"Our data points are quite useful because although we are only sensitive to really powerful radio signals, the galaxies in a field contain a lot of stars, hundreds of billions, so it might just be possible that because we're looking at so many stars we might get lucky and find a few of the very powerful signals that might be out there," Garrett said.
One recommendation Garrett and Siemion had was for scientists involved with SETI to broaden their search for alien transmissions beyond the objects that are targeted by Breakthrough Listen.
"I think this is the first step in thinking about SETI on a very different scale," Garrett concluded. "Very nearby galaxy groups and clusters are a good place to look for signals because you are pointing in a direction that contains many stars."
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