AstroLands Summer Interns 2021 Guest Blog!

Hi, I’m Ben! I’ve just finished my final year of Maths and Physics at UL and will be starting a Master’s in Space Science and Technology at UCD in September. I’ve been obsessed with space as long as I can remember, so the choice to study physics in college certainly wasn’t rocket science!

This summer, I’m working alongside Owen under the guidance of Dr. Evan Keane of N.U.I. Galway on a project searching for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), sponsored by Breakthrough Listen and the Berkeley SETI Research Center.

To carry out our work, we use two stations which are part of the LOFAR low-frequency array spanning almost the width of Europe. The first station, I-LOFAR, is located in Birr, here in Ireland, while the second station, LOFAR-SE, is situated in Onsala, Sweden. Both are state-of-the-art radio telescopes which are sensitive to very feint radio signals. Most of the signals detected by the stations can be attributed to interference due to local radio, air traffic control and even satellites, but we hope somewhere out there, we might just detect ET trying to phone home!

Power (y-axis) vs. Frequency in MHz (x-axis) plot for TESS Target Star TIC142090065 with badchans(x) line, a cutoff for interference signals

Of course, trying to listen for ET’s call is very difficult when there’s a lot of radio signals here on Earth that might throw you off the scent. To help us, we use a machine learning algorithm called TurboSETI which can detect unusual transmissions hidden among the more common sources of radio interference. Furthermore, to double-check, we run TurboSETI on the data from both LOFAR stations and check for common “hits”, where the algorithm has detected an interesting signal received in both Ireland and Sweden. We haven’t found any would-be aliens yet, but we’ll be sure to keep looking. Maybe the phone reception is just poor in our little part of the Milky Way!

If you’d like to find out more about this project, check out Berkeley’s page