Sofia Sheikh is one of a handful of postdoctoral researchers who have specialized in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. She talks to David Appell about strange signals, Star Trek, picking a tricky research field and the importance of mentorship.
When a suspicious radio signal emerged from the direction of the solar system’s nearest neighbouring star in 2019, the Breakthrough Listen project put Sofia Sheikh in charge of figuring out what produced it. Was it from an alien civilization from an exoplanet in the habitable zone orbiting Proxima Centauri, just 4.2 light-years from Earth? Or was it a radio signal from any of an almost innumerable number of potential sources on and around Earth?
Sheikh, a first-year postdoctoral researcher, was then part of the Berkeley SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. She co-ordinated a team that analysed the collected data in great detail, looking for similar signal patterns. Meanwhile, other project members searched, as best they could, through whatever public information they could gather on satellite transmissions and planetary spacecraft. They even examined aircraft in Australia that happen to use frequencies close to the suspicious five-hour signal. Dubbed the Breakthrough Listen Candidate 1 (BLC1), the signal was detected by the 64-metre Parkes Murriyang radio telescope in New South Wales, Australia.
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