Australia's role in the search for life in space
The world's biggest search for extra-terrestrial intelligence is on. An Australian radio telescope in operation for more than 50 years will be one of the primary instruments used in a new $100m search for life elsewhere in space. The Parkes telescope's main purpose is astronomy, and numerous upgrades over the past five decades have kept it at the cutting-edge.
The 10-year project - known as the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) - was announced this week by Prof Stephen Hawking in London, and is being funded by Russian billionaire and venture capitalist Yuri Milner.
One of the two main radio telescopes being used in the search is a 64-metre-wide parabolic dish known as the Parkes telescope. The facility, 380km (236 miles) west of Sydney, belongs to Australia's national science organisation, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).
A multi-million dollar agreement has been worked out that will give project scientists access to 25% of the telescope's time over the next five years, says Lewis Ball, chief of CSIRO's Astronomy and Space Science unit. Mr Ball says its location will allow the project to survey the centre of the Milky Way galaxy, which passes almost directly overhead in the southern sky.
"That's the region of our galaxy that has the highest concentration of stars, and therefore planets… that may support life," he says. "It's the richest area of our galaxy to search for extraterrestrial intelligence and it's right on our doorstep."