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Astronomers scan millions of stars in biggest ever search for extraterrestrial life

The powerful multibeam receiver is fitted to the Parkes radio telescope in New South Wales, Australia. Credit: PA

Radio astronomers have started scanning millions of stars in the biggest ever hunt for signs of alien life in our galaxy.

Scientists from the Breakthrough Listen project will spend more than two months searching for signals transmitted by extraterrestrial civilisations in the Milky Way.

Using a powerful multibeam receiver that can "listen" in 13 directions at once, they will eavesdrop on millions of stars, not merely a chosen handful within a few light years of Earth.

Each beam allows more than 100 million radio channels to be scanned, generating up to 130 gigabits of data per second - thousands of times the bandwidth of a fast home internet connection.

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is home to millions of stars. Credit: PA

As well as scouring the galactic plane, the Parkes radio telescope in New South Wales, Australia will also point towards the Milky Way's centre, which is densely packed with stars surrounding a supermassive black hole.

Project scientist Dr Danny Price, from the University of California at Berkeley, said: "With these new capabilities we are scanning our galaxy in unprecedented detail."

He added: "By trawling through these huge datasets for signatures of technological civilisations, we hope to uncover evidence that our planet, among the hundreds of billions in our galaxy, is not the only one where intelligent life has arisen."

Breakthrough Listen was launched in London in 2015 by Russian technology tycoon and billionaire Yuri Milner.

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He was supported by celebrity cosmologist Professor Stephen Hawking, who died in March.

Listen is one of a number of Breakthrough initiatives costing a total of 100 million US dollars (£74 million).

They also include Breakthrough Starshot, a bold plan to send a swarm of tiny laser-driven spacecraft to Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to Earth.