NUI Galway Researcher to tune telescope for extra-terrestrial searches

Next generation Very Large Array radio telescopes. Credit: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

Telescope will have scientific capabilities beyond any existing or currently proposed observatory



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16 February 2021 | 0

Dr Evan Keane of NUI Galway’s Centre for Astronomy has been awarded seed funding to examine how the next generation Very Large Array radio telescope can be designed to identify signatures of extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Radio telescopes are particularly well suited for identifying technosignatures, technological signatures of life, from exoplanets. Radio waves, which can be transmitted across, and be detectable over, greater distances than other forms of light, can encode large bandwidths of information.

Currently in the design stages, the next generation Very Large Array will be the largest radio telescope in the Northern Hemisphere, consisting of hundreds of radio dishes, spread over 8,000 kilometres in North America working in tandem together. The details of the design are still being debated, investigated, and studied by astronomers and engineers worldwide, including Dr Keane.




Dr Keane and his collaborators in Canada and the United States will examine how the next generation Very Large Array should be designed to maximise its abilities in the search for technosignatures of extraterrestrial intelligence. How should the dishes be spaced, what frequency bands should be used, what search algorithms should be deployed and what supercomputing backend capabilities do these require? And how to do this while simultaneously performing all the other cutting edge astrophysics studies that the observatory will do?

“I am very excited to be investigating how to tackle perhaps the most difficult challenge there is in science,” said Dr Keane. “These searches for technosignatures are also now happening on Irish soil too. With my collaborators in Berkeley, and across Ireland, we have been enabling a technosignature search system on the Irish Low Frequency Array station in Birr, Co. Offaly. This is a great opportunity for upcoming Irish scientists to tackle these questions at home.” 

Prior to joining NUI Galway in January, Dr Keane was Project Scientist for the Square Kilometre Array, the two largest telescopes in the Southern Hemisphere, where he worked the technical design ensuring that the telescopes deliver on the observatory’s scientific priorities. Since his arrival, Dr Keane has also brought a joint NUI Galway-Berkeley summer internship programme which will hire two research interns to work with the telescope in Birr this summer. 

The funding for this work comes from an ngVLA Community Study, a programme run by the United States’ National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

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