A giant dish telescope in Australia has been pointed towards a red dwarf star 4.2 light years away as part of a major new search for intelligent alien life.
The Parkes radio telescope, in New South Wales, was aimed towards Proxima Centauri which was recently shown to have an Earth-sized planet in an orbit suitable for life.
Scientists will use the 210ft telescope to scan a host of radio frequencies looking for signals from an extraterrestrial civilisation.
The Breakthrough Listen initiative to step up the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) was launched last year by Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner and British cosmologist Professor Stephen Hawking.
Proxima b, the closest exoplanet to the Sun, was discovered in August this year.
The planet, roughly 1.3 times the size of Earth, is thought to be rocky and orbits the star at a distance that could permit liquid water on its surface – putting it in the so-called “habitable zone” where life may have evolved.
But because the Proxima Centauri star shines so dimly, its habitable zone is 25 times closer in than the Sun’s, meaning Proxima b could be blasted by harmful radiation from solar flares.
Dr Andrew Siemion, director of the University of California SETI Research Centre, said: “The chances of any particular planet hosting intelligent life-forms are probably minuscule.
“But once we knew there was a planet right next door, we had to ask the question, and it was a fitting first observation for Parkes. To find a civilisation just 4.2 light years away would change everything.”
The Parkes radio telescope picked up the first transmissions from Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin when they set foot on the moon on 20 July, 1969.
It is one of three telescopes taking part in Breakthrough Listen over the next 10 years. The others are Green Bank radio telescope in West Virginia and the robotic Automated Planet Finder at the Lick Observatory in California.
Another initiative in the project could see a swarm of microchip-sized camera-carrying probes sent to Proxima Centauri, in a journey taking between 20 and 30 years.