A bold new programme financed by a Silicon Valley tycoon will revitalise the hunt for alien civilisations
IN 1959 a young astronomer called Frank Drake was working at the Green Bank radio observatory in West Virginia. Thinking about the capabilities of the 26-metre dish under construction there, he realised that, if it were used to transmit radio waves rather than to receive them, it would produce a signal that a similar telescope on a planet orbiting another star would be able to pick up. For the first time, human beings had a technology for communicating with other solar systems—an idea which led immediately to the speculation that, if there were any aliens out there, they might already be doing something similar.
Dr Drake put his idea to three colleagues over burgers at a nearby diner. Two were distinctly unimpressed. The third, a physicist of far-reaching interests called Lloyd Berkner, was enthusiastic. And since Berkner—who had a reputation as an “optimistic gambler”, Dr Drake recalled in his memoirs—was the one who controlled the money, Dr Drake got to carry out his search. In 1960 he spent 150 hours pointing the Green Bank telescope at two nearby stars, Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani, and scanning for signals. Thus began the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI.
Five and half decades on, Dr Drake joined Stephen Hawking, a physicist, and Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, to launch Breakthrough Listen, the latest incarnation of the search. It is an undertaking that would have seemed unbelievable back then. As of 2016, an unprecedented 15% of the observing time at Green Bank’s latest dish—which at 100 metres across has 15 times the area of its first—will be devoted to seeking signals from aliens. Rather than looking at just two stars, Breakthrough Listen will observe the nearest 1m, as well as looking more generally in the core and disc of the Milky Way, and 100 other galaxies to boot. Later in 2016 the project will add the 64-metre dish at the Parkes Observatory, in Australia, to its workforce. In time, further observatories will be pressed into service. Back in 1960, Dr Drake could listen in to just one radio channel at a time. The new effort will use cutting-edge electronics to scan some 10 billion simultaneously.
Many such searches, most privately funded, have been attempted before. But Breakthrough Listen will have 50 times the sensitivity of any previous effort, will cover much more of both the sky and the radio spectrum, and will also use an optical telescope to search systematically for laser transmissions, should they turn out to be E.T.’s preferred mode of discourse. All of the petabytes of resulting data will be freely available for anyone with an internet connection to analyse. The team behind Breakthrough Listen says it will do as much searching every day as any of the previous projects managed in a year.
Let the dice fly high
The optimistic gambler responsible for this new effort is Yuri Milner, a Russian entrepreneur and investor who has made a fortune in Silicon Valley. Mr Milner has a background in physics and a long-standing interest in space. Indeed, his parents named him after Yuri Gagarin—who, in the year of Mr Milner’s birth, became the first human to orbit the Earth. In 2012 Mr Milner helped found the Breakthrough prizes, awarded to researchers who have helped answer big questions in biology, physics and maths. Convinced that the existence of extraterrestrial life is the biggest question of all, he has committed $100m over ten years to Breakthrough Listen.
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