World-renowned astronomer and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has teamed up with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner to launch a massive privately-funded hunt for alien life.
The $100 million project, called Breakthrough Listen, was announced during a press conference at the Royal Society in London on Monday.
“We believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth, so in an infinite universe, there must be other occurrences of life,”
Hawking said during the press conference.
Milner, the Russian investor bankrolling the project, traces his fascination with space all the way back to his childhood — Milner was actually named after Yuri Gagarian, the Russian cosmonaut who became the first human to leave Earth in 1961 (the same year Milner was born).
For Milner, the question, ‘Are we alone in the universe?’ is now the single most important question of our time. Unfortunately, the amount of funding available to people trying to answer this question is extremely limited.
Even the SETI Institute — the largest organization involved in the search for extra-terrestrial life — receives zero government funding, and is forced to rely on support from a handful of private organizations and universities.
Milner hopes that the Breakthrough Listen project will provide a much needed boost to the search for alien life. According to Business Insider,
Milner said this search would cover 10 times as much of the sky as any previous search. He said it would process five times as much of the radio spectrum as has ever been scanned before. It will do so 100 times as quickly. It will survey the 1 million closest stars to Earth and the center of the Milky Way. Beyond that, it will listen to 100 galaxies farther afield.
Milner’s $100 million investment will be spread out over the next 10 years. The bulk of the money will go towards renting two massive radio telescopes, as well as a third telescope that picks up laser communication from around the galaxy.
Scientists involved in the search for extra-terrestrial life are thrilled about Milner’s investment, which will give them unprecedented access to the best tools in the world. Andrew Siemion, an astrophysicist at the University of California – Berkley, is one of the co-founders of Breakthrough Listen:
“We would typically get 24 to 36 hours on a telescope per year, but now we’ll have thousands of hours per year on the best instruments. It’s difficult to overstate how big this is. It’s a revolution,”
Siemion said at Monday’s press conference.
Milner is making sure to keep his expectations low for Breakthrough Listen, telling Business Insider that he doesn’t expect the project to produce any definitive results within the next 10 years. Instead, he hopes to inspire others to help fund the search for extra-terrestrial life after the project comes to a close.
The information and data collected by the Breakthrough Listen team will be shared with the public, allowing amateur alien-hunters to help with the search.
BONUS: As part of the announcement of the Breakthrough Listen project, Yuri Milner wrote a letter entitled, “Are we alone? Now is the time to find out.” You can read it below.
Who are we?
A mature civilization, like a mature individual, must ask itself this question. Is humanity defined by its divisions, its problems, its passing needs and trends? Or do we have a shared face, turned outward to the Universe?
Yet millions are inspired by these ideas, whether they meet them in science or science fiction. Because the biggest questions of our existence are at stake. Are we the Universe’s only child — our thoughts its only thoughts? Or do we have cosmic siblings — an interstellar family of intelligence? As Arthur C. Clarke said, “In either case the idea is quite staggering.”
That means the search for life is the ultimate ‘win-win’ endeavor. All we have to do is take part.
Today we have search tools far surpassing those of previous generations. Telescopes can pick out planets across thousands of light years. The magic of Moore’s law lets our computers sift data orders of magnitude faster than older mainframes — and ever quicker each year.
These tools are now reaping a harvest of discoveries. In the last few years, astronomers and the Kepler Mission have discovered thousands of planets beyond our solar system. It now appears that most stars host a planetary system. Many of them have a planet similar in size to our own, basking in the ‘habitable zone’ where the temperature permits liquid water. There are likely billions of earth-like worlds in our galaxy alone. And with instruments now or soon available, we have a chance of finding out if any of these planets are true Pale Blue Dots – home to water, life, even minds.
There has never been a better moment for a large-scale international effort to find life in the Universe. As a civilization, we owe it to ourselves to commit time, resources, and passion to this quest.
But as well as a call to action, this is a call to thought. When we find the nearest exo-Earth, should we send a probe? Do we try to make contact with advanced civilizations? Who decides? Individuals, institutions, corporations, or states? Or can we as species — as a planet — think together?
Three years ago, Voyager 1 broke the sun’s embrace and entered interstellar space. The 20th century will be remembered for our travels within the solar system. With cooperation and commitment, the present century will be the time when we graduate to the galactic scale, seek other forms of life, and so know more deeply who we are.