SETI to check out Kepler exoplanets for signs of alien life

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Scientists at the SETI Institute are to pop their headphones back on and start listening out for aliens once again, thanks to new funding.

The Allen Telescope Array (ATA) was mothballed back in April, when its then partner, UC Berkeley, withdrew for lack of funding. Berkeley had been operating the Hat Creek Observatory in northern California where the ATA is located. 

But with new funding acquired for observatory operations, the ATA can carry on where it left off, examining the thousands of new candidate planets found by Kepler. The money's come from the public, as well as from the US Air Force.

"This is a superb opportunity for SETI observations," says Jill Tarter, director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute. 

"For the first time, we can point our telescopes at stars, and know that those stars actually host planetary systems – including at least one that begins to approximate an Earth analog in the habitable zone around its host star.  That’s the type of world that might be home to a civilization capable of building radio transmitters."

Top priority will be given to the recently-discovered planets that are located in their star’s habitable zone, where temperatures imply that liquid water could exist. However, nothing will be ruled out.

"In SETI, as with all research, preconceived notions such as habitable zones could be barriers to discovery," says Tarter.  "So, with sufficient future funding from our donors, it’s our intention to examine all of the planetary systems found by Kepler."

Over the next two years, the ATA will systematically explore these systems across the entire, naturally-quiet 1 to 10 GHz terrestrial microwave window.  It can search tens of millions of 1Hz-wide channels at any one time.

"Kepler’s success has created an amazing opportunity to focus SETI research.  While discovery of new exoplanets via Kepler is backed with government monies, the search for evidence that some of these worlds might be home to intelligence falls to SETI alone," says Tarter. 

"And our SETI exploration depends entirely on private donations, for which we are deeply grateful to our donors."

The public can follow the new ATA observations via the SETIStars.org website.