Giant telescope could watch alien TV

Space scientists got the go-ahead yesterday for a radio telescope so powerful that it will be able to tune into alien TV. A network of new dishes and antennas across southern Africa and Australia will combine to work as an ultra-sensitive ear on the Universe.

How the main dishes of the SKA telescope will look. Credit: SKA Organisation/Swinburne Astronomy Productions
How the main dishes of the SKA telescope will look. Credit: SKA Organisation/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

The £1.2 billion telescope will be the world’s largest and equivalent to a single dish one square kilometre in size – hence its name the Square Kilometre Array.

Headquarters for the mega-telescope, which “sees” radio waves, will be in the UK at Jodrell Bank, Cheshire, which is famous for its giant Lovell dish.

Tim O’Brien, Associate Director of Jodrell Bank, told Skymania News yesterday: “The SKA will be 50 times more powerful than existing radio telescopes which is a huge leap in sensitivity, equivalent to 200 like that at Jodrell Bank.

“Though not a primary science goal, detecting signals from alien civilisations is a very interesting possibility. We don’t, of course, know if there are extraterrestrials out there or if they are sending out radio waves.

“But we can calculate the sort of signals, given the power of this new telescope, that we could listen to with it. Our own airport radar signals are spreading out throughout the galaxy now, even though they’re not messages we are deliberately sending out.

“It turns out that we’ll be able to detect similar radar signals to a distance of 50 light-years – and there are hundreds of stars within that distance, possibly with planets.

“There is even the possibility that we might detect TV signals leaking out from any inhabited worlds that happened to be orbiting the nearest stars. That is much more of a challenge because the signals are weaker than radar, but it is not impossible.

“And if any extraterrestrials are deliberately trying to send us messages, then we’ll be able to pick them up from far across the galaxy.”

Competition has been fierce between South Africa and neighbouring states on one hand and Australia and New Zealand on the other to host the vastly spread listening stations.

Yesterday a meeting of SKA organisers in Amsterdam decided to share the project between the two continents – though with the overwhelming majority of individual instruments in Africa.

More than 2,500 antennas will be sited in Africa and just 60 in Australia. The wide spread of the components will allow the telescope to observe in much greater detail.

Professor Paul Alexander, head of the Astrophysics Group at Cambridge University, said yesterday: “This is great news for the UK. SKA will help us to answer questions about how the first stars and galaxies formed after the Big Bang, and how they have evolved, as well as the role of magnetism in the cosmos, the nature of gravity, and possibly even whether there is life elsewhere in the Universe.”

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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