Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Alien Hunt Gets Serious Funding Boost

(L-R) DST Global Founder Yuri Milner, Theoretical Physicist Stephen Hawking and Cosmologist and astrophysicist Lord Martin Rees attend a press conference on the Breakthrough Life in the Universe Initiatives, hosted by Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking, at The Royal Society on July 20, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images for Breakthrough Initiatives)

The Breakthrough Prize Foundation, an organization created by investor Yuri Milner, has announced that it will commit $100 million over the next ten years to a new, large-scale Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) initiative. The intention is to use existing radio telescopes in West Virginia (the 100 meter Green Bank Telescope) and Australia (the 64 meter Parkes Telescope) to examine up to one million star systems for radio signals that would betray the presence of intelligence. The funding will allow the development of new receiving technologies that can speed up the search for radio broadcasts.

The initiative was announced by Milner on July 20 in London at The Royal Society, where he was joined by physicist Stephen Hawking, Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, SETI research pioneer Frank Drake, UC Berkeley astronomy professor Geoff Marcy and postdoctoral fellow Andrew Siemion, and foundation chairman Peter Worden.

“Current technology gives us a real chance to answer one of humanity’s biggest questions: Are we alone?" Milner said.

The first of two initiatives, Breakthrough Listen, will be the most powerful, comprehensive and intensive scientific search ever undertaken for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth. The second, Breakthrough Message, will fund an international competition to generate messages representing humanity and planet Earth, which might one day be sent to other civilizations.

“With Breakthrough Listen, we’re committed to bringing the Silicon Valley approach to the search for intelligent life in the Universe. Our approach to data will be open and taking advantage of the problem-solving power of social networks,” Milner said.

For the Breakthrough Listen program, UC Berkeley will build high-speed digital electronics and high-bandwidth signal processing instruments to gather and analyze the radio and optical data collected by the telescopes, and will train the next generation of SETI scientists, said Dan Werthimer, one of the leaders of the effort.

“This is about five times the amount of money now spent worldwide on SETI, part of which will be used to purchase dedicated time on telescopes that previously we were lucky to get only a day or two per year,” said Werthimer, who heads the world’s longest-running SETI project, called SERENDIP, and is the scientific director of SETI@home, the popular crowd-sourced computing project.

Beyond the nearby stellar targets, the project will also examine a large number of galaxies, as very advanced societies might be wielding high-powered signaling devices able to bridge intergalactic distances. 

In addition to these radio SETI efforts, the Breakthrough Prize Foundation will underwrite an augmented search for laser flashes from the cosmos using a telescope at the Lick Observatory, in California. A further aspect of the initiative is to study the desirability and possible content of deliberate transmissions to nearby star systems, so-called active SETI.

"I strongly support the Breakthrough Initiatives and the search for extraterrestrial life," Hawking said.

Details on the Breakthrough Message competition will be announced at a later date. This initiative is not a commitment to send messages. It’s a way to learn about the potential languages of interstellar communication and to spur global discussion on the ethical and philosophical issues surrounding communication with intelligent life beyond Earth.

“The Breakthrough Message competition is designed to spark the imaginations of millions, and to generate conversation about who we really are in the universe and what it is that we wish to share about the nature of being alive on Earth. Even if we don’t send a single message, the act of conceptualizing one can be transformative," said Ann Druyan, Creative Director of the Interstellar Message, NASA Voyager.

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