NASA joins forces with alien hunters to search life on exoplanets

NASA joins forces with alien hunters to search for life beyond our solar system in $100 million project that ‘listens’ for signs of advanced civilizations

  • NASA has partnered with SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) scientists
  • Will listen for ‘technosignatures’ and look for anomalies in stellar light curves 
  • Both clues suggest distant worlds are inhabited by an advanced alien civilization

NASA is set to scan hundreds of the nearest exoplanets in search for alien life.

The American agency has announced a new partnership with SETI scientists leading the $100 million Breakthrough Listen project.

Using NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellites (TESS), the team will identify anomalies in the stellar ‘light curves’ and listen for ‘technosignatures’, both of which are indicators of advanced alien civilizations. 

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Using NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) (pictured), the team will identify anomalies in the stellar ‘light curves’ and listen for ‘technosignatures’, both of which are indicators of advanced alien civilizations

The partnership between NASA and SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) was announced today at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington, DC. 

The TESS and Listen collaboration will expand Breakthrough Listen’s target list (adding over 1000 ‘objects of interest’ identified by TESS); refine Listen’s analysis strategy (for example, utilizing new knowledge about planetary alignments to predict when transmissions might be more likely to occur); and provide more meaningful statistics in the event of non-detections.

Dr. S. Pete Worden, Executive Director of the Breakthrough Initiatives, said, ‘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.’

‘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?’

Breakthrough Listening will have access to some of the most advanced observatories on Earth during this mission, including Parkes and Green Bank radio telescopes, MeerKAT and the SETI Institute’s Allen telescope array.

NASA has announced a new partnership with SETI scientists leading the $100 million Breakthrough Listen project. The team will scan hundreds of exoplanets (pictured is a concept drawing of K2-18b)

The captured data will be analyzed for ‘technosignatures’, which are created by technologies of advanced civilizations and come in different forms such as radio waves, transmitters and propulsion devices. 

Researchers will also be on the lookout for  anomalies in the stellar ‘light curves’ TESS collects, as such oddities could be caused by orbiting megastructures built by advanced civilizations. 

And the organization already has its eyes on a few targets – specifically interstellar visitors Oumuamua and Borisov.

Dr. Andrew Siemion, leader of the Breakthrough Listen science team said ‘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.’


NASA’s new ‘planet hunter,’ set to be Kepler’s successor, is equipped with four cameras that will allow it to view 85 per cent of the entire sky, as it searches exoplanets orbiting stars less than 300 light-years away.

By studying objects much brighter than the Kepler targets, it’s hoped TESS could uncover new clues on the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe.

Its four wide-field cameras will view the sky in 26 segments, each of which it will observe one by one.

In its first year of operation, it will map the 13 sectors that make up the southern sky.

Then, the following year, it will scour the northern sectors.

‘We learned from Kepler that there are more planets than stars in our sky, and now TESS will open our eyes to the variety of planets around some of the closest stars,’ said Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division director at NASA’s Headquarters. 

‘TESS will cast a wider net than ever before for enigmatic worlds whose properties can be probed by NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope and other missions.’

Tess is 5 feet (1.5 meters) wide and is shorter than most adults.

The observatory is 4 feet across (1.2 meters), not counting the solar wings, which are folded for launch, and weighs just 800 pounds (362 kilograms). 

NASA says it’s somewhere between the size of a refrigerator and a stacked washer and dryer. 

Tess will aim for a unique elongated orbit that passes within 45,000 miles of Earth on one end and as far away as the orbit of the moon on the other end.

It will take Tess two weeks to circle Earth.   

‘Followup 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.’

TESS is expected to find up to 10,000 new planets, many of them considerably closer to Earth than those spotted by Kepler.

In April of 2018, SpaceX launched NASA’s $337 million TESS into space, which is equipped with four cameras that allows it to view 85 percent of the entire sky, as it searches exoplanets orbiting stars less than 300 light-years away.

Two months ago, TESS discovered was deemed a super-Earth exoplanet just around 31 light years away in the in the so-called habitable zone, an area far enough from its star to not be too hot but close enough to not be too cold.

In this region, it is possible for liquid water to exist on the surface of a planet if it is rocky, although further research is needed to work out whether GJ 357 d’s atmosphere is dense and warm enough to host liquid water.


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