Russian billionaire bankrolls new project to listen for Extraterrestrials

Scientists working on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) got an unprecedented boost in funding that will greatly increase their ability to listen for aliens. The announcement was made Monday at the Royal Society in London.

Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking announcing the $100 million Breakthrough Initiative in London. (Photo via Breakthrough Initiative)
Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking announcing the $100 million Breakthrough Initiative in London. (Photo via Breakthrough Initiative)

Russian billionaire Yuri Milner shared the stage with Stephen Hawking to make the announcement. Milner has pledged to donate $100 million over the next ten years. The funding will help gain access to two of the largest and most powerful telescopes in the world, the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the Parkes Telescope in Australia.

The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Radio Telescope (GBT) focuses 2.3 acres of radio light. It is 485ft tall, nearly as tall as the nearby mountains and much taller than pine trees in the national forest. The telescope is in a valley of the Allegheny mountains to shield the observations from radio interference. (Credit: National Radio Astronomy Observatory)

It will also allow SETI to scan a larger amount of the radio spectrum. Currently SETI gets around 36 hours a year with each telescope, and they scan about 20 to 50 megahertz of the radio spectrum. This new project will allow SETI to access thousands of hours with the telescopes, and allow them to scan the entire 10 gigahertz radio spectrum.

Andrew Siemion, a director at the University of Berkeley’s SETI research center, will be the lead investigator on the project, which has been named the Breakthrough Initiative. He told Forbes, until now “We’ve hunted and pecked.”

“If you take into account hours and signal types this will be 50 to 100 times more powerful than everything we’ve done in the past.”

Parkes Observatory, New South Wales, Australia. (Credit: Ian Sutton/Wikimedia Commons)

To put into perspective just how much of a boon this new donation is, Forbes reviewed SETI’s previous funding. The largest donation prior to Milner was by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen. He spent $30 million to build an array of radio telescopes for SETI near San Francisco that went online in 2007. However, due to a lack of funding, the University of Berkeley had to back out of the project in 2012.

Besides Allen, donations typically range in the thousands, not millions. They received an $810,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation in 2013, and a $600,000 grant from NASA in 2012. According to Forbes, ” The grant from Milner essentially represents a 20-fold annual funding increase for the entire field.”

Stephen Hawking says the effort is “critically important.”

He told the audience at the Royal Society: ”We believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth, so in an infinite universe there must be other occurrences of life.”

“It’s time to commit to finding the answer to search for life beyond Earth.”

However, some have questioned the idea of whether listening to radio signals is a worthwhile effort at all, including Paul Davies, a popular science author who often writes and comments on the search for extraterrestrial life. He is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist, and is the chair of the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup.

He says, “I have championed some speculative ideas, such as broadening the search for alien technology, and one-way missions to Mars.”

From left: SETI Senior Astronomer Seth Shostak, Physicist and Author Paul Davies, and Arizona State University Associate Research Professor David Williams, discussing extraterrestrial life at an Phoenix area comic book convention. (Credit: Alejandro Rojas)

In an article in The New York Times, they summarized Davies’ perspective on the program to listen for radio signals from aliens in his book “The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence.”

They wrote: “It’s mildly batty to search for radio signals, sent intentionally or not, from what may be a very advanced civilization, he writes, because even Earth’s own radio output is already beginning to fade. Radio signals are outdated technology, nearly as sun-bleached as an old issue of Omni magazine.”

Martin Rees

Another famous astrophysicist on the Breakthrough Initiative project, whose face happens to be painted on the walls of the Royal Society, admits the program is a long shot. Martin Rees, who was also the president of the Royal Society from 2005 to 2010, says even with this new windfall, success of the program is uncertain.

“It’s a huge gamble, but the payoff would be so colossal in recognizing there’s life out there that this investment is hugely worthwhile,” Rees told Forbes. “Even if the chance of success is small.”

The Breakthrough Initiative actually has two components. The first is called Breakthrough Listen and entails the SETI funding. The second is called Breakthrough Message and entails a $1 million prize for the creation of messages to send to space. However, the messages will not be sent, presumably because Hawking is afraid of what will happen in aliens find out we are here.

He said, “If you look at history, conflicts between unmanned and less intelligence organisms have often been disastrous from their point of view. Encounters between civilizations with less-advanced technology have gone badly for the less-advanced. A civilization reading one of our messages could be billions of years ahead. If so they will be vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable that we see bacteria.”

Rees disagrees. “I suspect if aliens know we exist, they know we’re here already. I don’t think we should imagine any intelligence is like ours at all,” said Rees.

Although the messages from the contest will not be broadcast, Milner says the intention is to inspire conversations about the philosophical and ethical issues involved with potential communications with extraterrestrial civilizations.

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