A radio telescope near the town of Parkes, Australia, this week joined the privately funded Breakthrough Listen project in hopes of discovering evidence that a technically advanced civilization exists beyond Earth.
The Parkes telescope's first target was Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf star that is the sun's nearest neighbor. In August, astronomers announced that an Earth-size planet circles the star at the right distance for water, if any exists, to pool on its surface - a condition believed to be necessary for life.
Chances are slim the planet, known as Proxima b, is home to a technically advanced civilization, says Andrew Siemion, director of the University of California-Berkeley's SETI Research Center.
"But once we knew there was a planet right next door, we had to ask the question," said Siemion, who heads the Breakthrough Listen science program.
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"It was a fitting first observation for Parkes," he said in a statement.
Breakthrough Listen also uses two U.S. telescopes - the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the Automated Planet Finder at the Lick Observatory in California - but neither are positioned to observe Proxima Centauri and other targets in the Southern Hemisphere.
Breakthrough Listen is a 10-year, $100-million search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, project funded by internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner and backed by British physicist Stephen Hawking and other well-known astronomers.
The project, announced last year, began searching for non-naturally occurring radio signals in January. It is the most comprehensive search for ET to date.
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