The Search for Extraterrestrial Life Just Got Real

Radio Telescope Scans the Sky

Today marks 46 years since Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on extraterrestrial ground, when the Apollo 11 mission successfully landed on the Moon. Russian billionaire Yuri Milner certainly has a sense of occasion, because he chose this auspicious date to announce what may be the next big step in learning about our universe: a $100 million project to search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

SETI has fought for decades to secure a decent amount of funding to conduct a thorough search of the skies, although until recently they were also hamstrung by the technology available to do so. Both of those problems have suddenly been solved through the wallet of Milner, who made his fortune through a number of smart investments, including being an early funder of Facebook.

Milner announced his 'Breakthrough Initiatives' today, flanked by the likes of Stephen Hawking, SETI pioneer Frank Drake, and exoplanet hunter extraordinaire Geoff Marcy:

  1. 'Breakthrough Listen' will conduct the most comprehensive search for signals from alien civilisations ever, using the best technology available. Included is a large amount of observation time on two of the world’s most powerful radio telescopes: Green Bank Telescope in the United States, and Parkes Telescope in Australia. Previously only allowed a day or two per year on these big telescopes, SETI researchers will now have thousands of hours of listening time.
  2. 'Breakthrough Message' is the complementary project to send a message back to listening aliens, “to describe ourselves and our planet in language that other minds can understand", according to Milner. This will involve a million dollar prize pool for a competition to create the message, as well as some debate as to whether sending a message is in fact a smart move (ie. should we broadcast our existence in case there are nasty aliens out there).

Stephen Hawking voiced his support for the project in the following statement:

To understand the Universe, you must know about atoms. About the forces that bind them.

The contours of space and time. The birth and death of stars, the dance of galaxies. The secrets of black holes.

But that is not enough. These ideas cannot explain everything. They can explain the light of stars. But not the lights that shine from planet Earth.

To understand these lights, you must know about life. About minds.

We believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth. So in an infinite universe, there must be other occurrences of life. Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps, intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean.

Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos. Unseen beacons, announcing that here, on one rock, the Universe discovered its existence.

Either way, there is no bigger question. It’s time to commit to finding the answer - to search for life beyond Earth. The Breakthrough Initiatives are making that commitment.

We are alive. We are intelligent. We must know.

The data from the Breakthrough Listen project will be open, allowing anyone to search through and process it, and will be integrated with SETI@home, allowing volunteers to contribute time on their home computers to sift through the SETI data deluge.

For more information, see the Breakthrough Initiatives website, and as always, science writer Alan Boyle is doing a great job keeping us all up to date with the latest happenings.