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SETI scan saves 'scope used for first Moon landing comms

'The Dish' in Australia's Parkes gets much-needed cash injection from alien-hunters

By Richard Chirgwin, 8 Nov 2016

Australia's Parkes radio-telescope has found one of the white knights it needed, in the form of the search-for-intelligent-life Breakthrough Listen project.

Ever since the country's premier government research agency, the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) was mugged by budget cuts, there's been a cloud hanging over “the Dish”: remote operations have meant cuts to on-site staff and there have been fears it might close entirely.

So there's probably a sigh of relief going around that the US$100 million, Stephen Hawking and Russian 'net entrepreneur Yuri Milner-backed project has decided to buy 25 per cent of the facility's available time, over the next five years.

It's also a step forward for Breakthrough Listen, as the first facility looking for candidates in the Southern Hemisphere skies. The project's other two 'scopes so far are both in America: West Virginia's Green Bank Telescope, and the Automated Planet Finder at Lick Observatory in California.

Green Bank is, itself, under a cloud. Last week, as this American Institute of Physics report explains, the US National Science Foundation is considering future funding for that telescope, as well as its participation in the Arecibo observatory.

Parkes ran its first Breakthrough Listen scan today (November 8) after two weeks of commissioning and test observations, according to this announcement by the CSIRO.

Its first target was Proxima b, a planet orbiting the habitable zone of the red giant Proxima Centauri, 4.3 light years away.

The release notes that Parkes's field of view includes into the centre of the Milky Way and “large swaths of the Galactic plane” that aren't visible to Northern Hemisphere telescopes.

The agreement also includes Melbourne's Swinburne University, which will work with the University of California Berkeley on signal processing and data storage systems, to prep Breakthrough Listen's data for public release. ®

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