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8 September 2020 Partner Release

PARTNER RELEASE - A radio telescope in outback Western Australia has completed the deepest and broadest search at low frequencies for alien technologies, scanning a patch of sky known to include at least 10 million stars.

[Music plays]

[Image shows a starry sky with a spinning earth globe, which zooms in on Western Australia. Concentric blue lines move around a point, and text appears: Murchison Radio Astronomy Observatory]

[Image changes to show a red earth desert landscape, and the camera pans across the landscape]

[Image changes to show a series of telescopes and the text appears: CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder telescope, Surveying the structure and evolution of the universe]

[Image changes to show the telescopes from directly above, then shows two vehicles driving between the telescopes]

[Image changes to follow the two vehicles, then focuses on the telescopes]

[Image changes to show a closer image of the telescope, and the text appears: Equipped with wide-field phased array receivers, CSIRO technology surveying the sky faster than ever before]

[Image changes to show the landscape with the telescopes]

[Image changes to show tracks on a desert landscape with two vehicles, then changes to show a checkerboard pattern installation of small telescopes]

[Image changes to show a closer view of the small telescopes and the text appears: Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) 4096-dipole antenna low-frequency telescope]

[Image shows the camera scanning around the telescopes and then zooms in on one telescope]

[Image changes to show a man’s face, and then changes to show the small telescopes]

[Image changes to show a signpost and text appears: MWSA has helped map more than 300,000 galaxies]

[Image changes to show a view from above, and then zooms further to show the entire installation]

[Image changes to show a complex of buildings and text appears: MRO Control Building, High tech custom supercomputing facility]

[Image changes to focus on one building, then an image appears of a woman walking through the door of the building]

[Image changes to show man walking along a corridor of glass doors, and passing through a door]

[Image changes to show bundled data cables connected to a blue grid, then zooms out to show stacks of similar objects]

[Image changes to show a vehicle driving towards a large solar array power station, and text appears: MRO Solar Hybrid Power Station, Astronomy’s first major hybrid energy system]

[Image changes to show the solar panels, and the camera pans along the panels]

[Image changes to show a shipping container, and text appears: One of Australia’s largest lithium-ion batteries (2.5MWh) Renewable energy storage – maximising the use of renewable power]

[Image changes to show the inside of the battery]

[Image changes to show an aerial view of the battery site, then change to show a vehicle moving towards a circular pattern of antennae. Text appears: ‘AAVS’ Antenna Test Platform, Testing the next generation of telescope technology]

[Image changes to show two men walking amongst an array of base plate rings on the ground, then shows the two men working on a triangular antenna above a ring]

[Image changes to show an array of triangular antennae, and text appears: New antenna and software technology will pave the way for the Square Kilometre Array telescope]

[Images pan through of two men working on the antennae, an aerial view of the site, and a series of completed antennae. Text appears: Square Kilometre Array, 131,000 antennas build in Australia from 2020 along with hundreds of dish antennas in South Africa]

[Image changes to pan across a series of square kilometre array antennas dotting the landscape around a telescope]

[Image changes to show the blue sky, and then shows a starry sky]

[Image changes to show the Square Kilometre Array logo, the CSIRO logo, the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research Logo, the Australian Government logo and the Western Australian logo]

[Text appears: We acknowledge the Wajarrai Yamaji as the traditional owners of the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) site. The MRO and the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope are managed and operated by CSIRO – The Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope is an international collaboration led and operated by Curtin University – The ‘AAVS’ test platform is an initiative of the Aperture Array Design and Construct (AADC) SKA consortium hosted by the MWA – The international Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) is a joint venture between Curtin University and the University of Western Australia]

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Astronomers used the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope to explore hundreds of times more broadly than any previous search for extraterrestrial life.

The study, published today in Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia, observed the sky around the Vela constellation. But in this part of the Universe at least, it appears other civilisations are elusive, if they exist.

The research was conducted by CSIRO astronomer Dr Chenoa Tremblay and Professor Steven Tingay, from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR).

Dr Tremblay said the telescope was searching for powerful radio emissions at frequencies similar to FM radio frequencies, that could indicate the presence of an intelligent source.

These possible emissions are known as ‘technosignatures’.

“The MWA is a unique telescope, with an extraordinarily wide field-of-view that allows us to observe millions of stars simultaneously,” she said.

“We observed the sky around the constellation of Vela for 17 hours, looking more than 100 times broader and deeper than ever before.

“With this dataset, we found no technosignatures—no sign of intelligent life.”

Professor Tingay said even though this was the broadest search yet, he was not shocked by the result.

“As Douglas Adams noted in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, ‘space is big, really big’.”

“And even though this was a really big study, the amount of space we looked at was the equivalent of trying to find something in the Earth’s oceans but only searching a volume of water equivalent to a large backyard swimming pool.

“Since we can’t really assume how possible alien civilisations might utilise technology, we need to search in many different ways. Using radio telescopes, we can explore an eight-dimensional search space.

“Although there is a long way to go in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, telescopes such as the MWA will continue to push the limits—we have to keep looking.”

The MWA is a precursor for the instrument that comes next, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a 1.7 billion Euro observatory with telescopes in Western Australia and South Africa. To continue the Douglas Adams references, think of the MWA as the city-sized Deep Thought and the SKA as its successor: the Earth.

“Due to the increased sensitivity, the SKA low-frequency telescope to be built in Western Australia will be capable of detecting Earth-like radio signals from relatively nearby planetary systems,” said Professor Tingay.

“With the SKA, we’ll be able to survey billions of star systems, seeking technosignatures in an astronomical ocean of other worlds.”

The MWA is located at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, a remote and radio quiet astronomical facility established and maintained by CSIRO—Australia’s national science agency. The SKA will be built at the same location but will be 50 times more sensitive and will be able to undertake much deeper SETI experiments.

"We acknowledge the Wajarri Yamatji people as the traditional owners of the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory site."


Dipole antennas of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescope in Mid West Western Australia. ©  DRAGONFLY MEDIA


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