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In 2015, Sofia Sheikh was at loose ends. Her adviser at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, with whom she studied hot, giant exoplanets, had left for a new job. Browsing reddit, she saw a post about a lavishly funded new search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and noticed that its leader was also at UC Berkeley: astrophysicist Andrew Siemion. She asked her former adviser for an introduction and met with Siemion when he was still unpacking boxes in a new office. “Everything’s kind of history from there,” says Sheikh, who became the team’s first undergraduate student.

Sheikh is now a Ph.D. student at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), University Park, where she led a radio survey of 20 nearby star systems aligned with Earth’s orbital plane. If an intelligent civilization inhabited one of these systems and pointed a powerful telescope our way, they would see Earth passing in front of the Sun, and they might detect signs of life in our atmosphere. They might even decide to send us a message. The results, published in February in The Astrophysical Journal, were unsurprising. “Spoiler alert: no aliens,” Sheikh jokes.

SETI researchers are used to negative results, but they are trying harder than ever to turn that record around. Breakthrough Listen, the $100 million, 10-year, privately funded SETI effort Siemion leads, is lifting a field that has for decades relied on sporadic philanthropic handouts. Prior to Breakthrough Listen, SETI was “creeping along” with a few dozen hours of telescope time a year, Siemion says; now it gets thousands. It’s like “sitting in a Formula 1 racing car,” he says. The new funds have also been “a huge catalyst” for training scientists in SETI, says Jason Wright, director of the Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center, which opened this year. “They really are nurturing a community.”

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Category: Science