The Parkes Radio Telescope’s involvement in the $100 million program in search of intelligent life beyond Earth will start in October. Dr Pete Worden, Chairman, Breakthrough Prize Foundation, delivered the John Bolton Lecture at the AstroFest in Parkes on Saturday to about 120 people detailing this initiative. The Breakthrough Initiative with Yuri Milner, internet investor and science philanthropist, and Stephen Hawking, physicist, announced the most comprehensive, intensive and sensitive search ever undertaken for artificial radio and optical signals in July last year.
The 10-year, multi-disciplinary search effort will complete a survey of the nearest million stars, it will scan the centre of our galaxy and the entire galactic plane, and beyond the Milky Way it will listen for messages from the 100 nearest galaxies using the world’s largest telescopes. This means the Parkes Radio Telescope would be used 25% of the time for observations in the Southern Hemisphere, and the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, USA will be used 20% of the time for the Northern Hemisphere.
Both Dr Worden and Yuri Milner have visited the Parkes Radio Telescope in the past year to discuss details of the program with local CSIRO staff. John Sarkissian, Operations Scientist, said it was a very exciting project. “If there is anything to be found, this project will find it.” In addition to this program, Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking announced the Breakthrough Starshot project on 12th April to develop a 100 million mile per hour mission to Earth’s nearest stars.
The idea is to develop light-propelled nanocrafts that could fly at 20% of light speed and capture images of possible planets and other scientific data in our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, just over 20 years after their launch. As leader of the program, Dr Worden said the Alpha Centauri star system is 25 trillion miles (4.37 light years) away. “With today’s fastest spacecraft, it would take about 30, 000 years to get there, so we had to look at something else. We ended up using very old technology – the sail.” Breakthrough Starshot aims to establish whether a gram-scale nanocraft with a 4m sail pushed by a 50 gigawatt laser light beam, can fly over a thousand times faster.
The nanocraft is a gram-scale robotic spacecraft consisting of a starchip and a ligthsail. With the dramatic decrease in the size of microelectronic components, the starchip weighing only a few milligrams could carry cameras, photon thrusters, power supply, and navigation and communication equipment to constitute a fully functioning space probe.
It is expected the Starshot would be launched in about 35 year’s time. The announcement on 12th April was made on the 55th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering space flight. Dr Worden, a former director of NASA AMES Research Center, will be advised by a committee of world-class scientists and engineers. The board will consist of Stephen Hawking, Yuri Milner and Mark Zuckerberg.
The AstroFest endeavours to bring worldrenowned astronomers, to the Central West so they may share their enthusiasm and love of the heavens. “The festival has been absolutely fabulous,” said Eileen Newport, President of CWAS. “We have been honoured to have such a great speaker as Dr Worden. The Breakthrough project has really captured people’s imagination, as all of us are interested in or wondering about extraterrestrial life.”
The festival, attended by people from all the states and ACT, presented a series of lectures, as well as events at the CSIRO Parkes Observatory Visitors Centre including daytime astronomy and talks. (See more on page 9.)