NASA’s TESS exoplanet mission widens its search to include alien life

A US$100 million research venture to find alien life has welcomed aboard a high-profile ally. The Breakthrough Listen project, backed by Stephen Hawking and Yuri Milner, has announced that scientists from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite mission will be working alongside its own researchers as they ramp up the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission was launched in April of 2018 as a successor to NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, with the spacecraft using low-noise cameras to study distant star systems. It works by monitoring those stars for dips in light that may be indicative of planets or other bodies passing in front of them. Ideally, some of those it discovers will be habitable worlds that could harbor some form of life, with a few resembling our own Earth already under its belt. Launched in 2015, the Breakthrough Listen (BL) project, meanwhile, is using the world’s premier space observatories to try and identify radio signals coming from our closest 100,00 stars that could be indicative of intelligent life. Which is to say, the two share some common interests.

Announced on Wednesday, the new collaboration will instantly add 1,000 new “objects of interest” to Breakthrough Listen’s target list, which had already been identified by TESS. The two will also work to leverage TESS’ expertise on planetary alignment to refine BL’s searching strategies, and BL will analyze TESS’s existing data for strange, irregular dips in light.

As a planet passes in front of its star and causes a temporary dimming in light, which is today’s primary method of exoplanet detection, these dips are more or less predictable due to the planet’s orbital path. But when these dimming events are unpredictable, that’s where things get interesting, as exhibited by Boyajian’s star which flickers and fades with strange irregularity. Although unlikely, some suspect this could be the result of large scale alien megastructures built light years away.

“The discovery by the Kepler spacecraft of Boyajian’s Star, an object with wild, and apparently random, variations in its lightcurve, sparked great excitement and a range of possible explanations, of which megastructures were just one,” Dr. Andrew Siemion, leader of the Breakthrough Listen science team. “Follow-up observations have suggested that dust particles in orbit around the star are responsible for the dimming, but studies of anomalies like this are expanding our knowledge of astrophysics, as well as casting a wider net in the search for technosignatures.”

The two will also be working with data pulled from BL’s primary facilities in the Green Bank Telescope and Parkes Telescope, along with other observatories around the world.

“It’s exciting that the world’s most powerful SETI search, with our partner facilities across the globe, will be collaborating with the TESS team and our most capable planet-hunting machine,” remarked Dr. Worden. “We’re looking forward to working together as we try to answer one of the most profound questions about our place in the Universe: Are we alone?”