Some of the MeerKAT dishes, outside Carnarvon in the Northern Cape.
  • South Africa’s radio telescope is joining Breakthrough Listen, an international initiative that is seeking signs of intelligent life in the universe
  • The MeerKAT telescope, inaugurated in July this year, is the most sensitive telescope of its kind in the world
  • Breakthrough Listen’s survey on MeerKAT will look at a million stars, which is a thousand times more than any previous search, hunting for signals from alien technology


South Africa’s Karoo will soon become a node of alien-hunting.

The 64-dish MeerKAT telescope will add its gaze to those of other telescopes as they search the skies for traces of alien life, Breakthrough Listen announced on Tuesday at the International Astronautical Congress in Germany.

Breakthrough Listen, a global scientific initiative, is “the largest ever scientific research programme aimed at finding evidence of civilisations beyond Earth”, it says. “Collaborating with MeerKAT will significantly enhance the capabilities of Breakthrough Listen,” said Yuri Milner, founder of the Breakthrough Initiatives. “This is now a truly global project.”

South Africa’s 64-dish MeerKAT radio telescope, inaugurated in July this year, is the most sensitive telescope of its kind in the world. Radio telescopes collect the relatively weak radio signals coming from space, and use them to investigate what is happening in the universe.

MeerKAT will eventually become part of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) which, when complete, will be the world’s largest radio telescope (and the largest scientific apparatus on Earth) with dishes and antennas in South Africa and Australia. At its inauguration, SKA Organisation director-general Phil Diamond said that, “with this new instrument, South Africa stands poised to be at the forefront of astronomy and data science”.

As part of Breakthrough Listen’s survey, MeerKAT will already be pushing the boundaries. It will examine a million stars, which is about a thousand times more than any previous search, scanning for signs of extraterrestrial technology.

With MeerKAT on board, the initiative will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Breakthrough Listen system on MeerKAT will be have an input data rate which is about 40,000 times faster than a home internet connection.

"Our new system is a small supercomputer," says Dr Griffin Foster, Breakthrough Listen’s project scientist on MeerKAT. “The powerful Breakthrough Listen hardware will enable us to look for interesting signals in real time and save the relevant data products to our on-site data archive."

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