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The New $100 Million Search For Life in the Cosmos

Can you hear me?

More than a half-century after the first modern search for communicating extraterrestrial life, humanity’s quest to find intelligent beings in the cosmos is getting a much-needed boost. Today, Silicon Valley billionaire Yuri Milner announced a $100 million project that will scan the sky for radio signals from other worlds. Called Breakthrough Listen, it will be the most powerful search for extraterrestrial intelligence ever undertaken on Earth.

“In one day, Breakthrough Listen will collect more data than a year of any previous search,” said Milner, who’s also behind the lucrative Breakthrough Prizes in physics, mathematics and the life sciences. “The scope of our search will be unprecedented.”

Milner announced the 10-year initiative at a ceremony in London that included remarks from theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who discussed the ubiquity of life’s building blocks in the cosmos, as well as the possibility that Earth’s lights might already be gleaming in alien eyes.

“It’s time to commit to finding the answer to the search for life beyond Earth,” Hawking said. “We are life, we are intelligent, we must know.”

Snooping on the Cosmos

Beginning in early 2016, Breakthrough Listen will eavesdrop on stars in 100 neighboring galaxies, the galactic plane and disk, and the 1 million stars closest to Earth. So far, the Green Bank Telescope, at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia, and the Parkes Observatory in New South Wales, Australia will be helping look for celestial signals of otherworldly origin.

The Green Bank Telescope, located in Green Bank, West Virginia, is home to the largest fully steerable telescope in the world.

“Approximately 20 percent of the annual observing time on the GBT will be dedicated to searching a staggering number of stars and galaxies for signs of intelligent life via radio signals,” said Tony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, in a statement.

These telescopes will peer at the sky in a multitude of frequencies, searching for the answer to that timeless question of whether the cosmos is filled with chatter, or if Earth is just a lonely beacon, murmuring messages into a sea of silent, sterile worlds. There is also an optical SETI component that will search for laser signals from other worlds, as well as a competition for interstellar message design (details TBD). Data from the project will be publicly available, ready for digging into by anyone with the tools and motivation. In fact, Milner said, it’s totally possible that any signal in those data might not be found by one of the professional astronomers involved in the project.

“We have the greatest opportunity ever to detect intelligent folks in the Universe,” says astronomer Geoffrey Marcy of UC-Berkeley, who is one of the co-investigators leading the project at Green Bank. Joining Marcy as a co-investigator on the Green Bank portion of the work is astronomer Frank Drake, of the SETI Institute.

“The plausibility of extraterrestrial intelligence has grown, the promise of success in searches has grown,” says Drake, who’s better known to me as Dad. “We will finally have stable funding so that we can plan from one year to the next, we can hire very talented people to carry out the work…it may take a long time, but it’s our best chance to get all of those treasures of knowledge that will accrue if we do indeed detect another intelligent civilization.”

From $2,000 to $100 million

In 1960, Dad performed the first modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Called Project Ozma, it looked for signals from alien worlds orbiting the nearby sun-like stars Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti. From April through July, astronomers monitored a handful of radio frequencies for artificial signals.

“The entire budget for the project was exactly $2,000,” Dad says. (Project Ozma inspired the name of this blog.)

The next year, Dad crafted his eponymous equation. It predicts – based on seven factors – the number of detectable, communicating civilizations in our Milky Way galaxy. Some of those factors, such as the prevalence of planets orbiting other sun-like stars, were total question marks in 1961. No one had ever really tackled these unknowns, so strange was the idea that such a thing could be scientifically respectable.

Even though the skies have stayed eerily quiet, in the half-century since Project Ozma, SETI has grown from an infant field on the fringe of science to a well-known endeavor. Now, some of the factors in the Drake Equation are very well known – including the prevalence of planets around other stars (others, alas, are just as vexing as in 1961). In fact, we now know that most stars have planets, and that a good percentage of those planets happen to be Earth-like.

“We learned only last year from the NASA Kepler mission that one in five sun-like stars harbors an Earth-size planet at lukewarm temperatures, suitable for life,” Marcy says.

A Sky Filled With Life

Based on that estimate, there could be tens of billions of habitable worlds in our galaxy. If you want to see a star that might incubate a habitable planet, all you need to do is go outside on a clear night and gaze into a small patch of sky. What’s more, Marcy says, astronomers are finding that the cosmos has been liberally sprinkled with the building blocks of life as we know it – organic molecules that can be used to form proteins and nucleic acids.

“Among all of those billions of planetary petri dishes, who could doubt that some of them sparked biochemical reactions that spawned replicating molecules, something like DNA,” Marcy says. “The only remaining question is how often Darwinian evolution leads to brainy creatures.”

We don’t know the answer to that question, and we won’t know until we look.

“We may not answer it,” says Martin Rees, astronomer royal and chair of the project’s advisory board. “But this gives a bigger chance that it will be answered in our lifetime.”

23 thoughts on “The New $100 Million Search For Life in the Cosmos

  1. It’s interesting that Marcy thinks the likelihood of life arising is sufficiently well understood that doubt about it being common can be dismissed. His opinion seems to go well beyond the current state of knowledge.

  2. With all the internet theories and extraterrestrial ‘proof’, you would think more than $2,000 would have been put in before now. I guess people didn’t care all that much, which makes me doubt their believing what they say. Put your money where your mouth is. …Which has just now (75 years later) been done.

    ND: Hi, Jack. There has been a lot more than $2,000 invested in SETI searching between 1960 and now. That was merely used as a point of comparison between the original modern SETI search and the initiative announced today. More info on intervening endeavours here.

  3. @PatO’C: what are you trying to say there? It looks like some sort of expression of faith in the absence of evidence.

  4. Waste of $100 million. Intelligent life very well may be out there or may have been out there, but the Universe is just too big and too old. 14 Billion years old and billions of light years wide, and through all the endless void interrupted by the occasional galaxy we expect to pick up a radio signal that we can recognize as being created by intelligent life? Ain’t gonna happen.

  5. It truly is an amazing idea… But are we sure we are ready to know… Are we sure we are ready to take that step. Of course I would love to know more about the universe (or maybe even multiverse). But how do we know that another world is light years away from being capable of receiving this message. Possibilities are endless, parallel worlds, unending space, what if we are the only ones out there… Then it’s just a waste of maybe $100000. It is still an amazing idea. But we need to think of every possibility. What if what we take on is too much to handle. All I ask is that we think of any possibility.

  6. 1. There are several reasons why SETI has failed so far.
    2. Is anyone interested in a four-fold increase in computation speeds?

  7. I always though the Drake’s eq had too many unknown params that cannot be statically determined because we just only know one planet that holds life and “advanced” inteligence, but it’s a good begining even more now having estimations for some of these params in the D’s EQ, but consider a totally different kind of life&intelligence, call it life, may it be formed i.e. by large clouds of hydrogen or any other material, forming “memory banks”, interacting like our brain at huge scales, evolving, learning, go beyond, think in 3+ dimensions “life” forms and intelligence, I guess life definition itself is quite limited usually in the common sense, 15+ years ago everybody’s though universe will contract again, far SN research gave the cue to an ever expanding universe, they had to go out and invent the so called dark matter, later the dark energy, all that reminds to me those math constants usually found in old equations that later had more sense, now we began to know how little we know, universe always surprises the human intelligence, giving a humble lesson, what now might seem to the science as “magic” might be inside some set of equations in the future, science should never discard anything for more magic it seems to be, we are only giving the first steps in a long long perhaps endless way. Now my question is, is the universe so vast that if life could be quite common in a 15K yrs old universe that even so we could not find any cue or track of it in 30K years of human culture?
    Perhaps is like going through the asteroid belt, the space between is so large that no matter the high number of bodies, the probably to hit them is very low, but with no doubt, the day the human race find signs of intelligence outside our world, our minds and culture will never be the same,
    I wonder what world we would live in after that… I just can’t wait to know the answer. By the way, perhaps could be more easily detected “foreign” intelligence in our nearby space, that is just near the tip of your nose, or even inside your body or brain, inside your DNA, might be some kind of “life” existing beyond our 3D space and we could be part of them, perhaps is not so necessary to check so far in space…although is not a bad idea of course.

    Congrats Nadia for this space!

    Regards from the very south
    Carlos (Montevideo, UY)

  8. Why do we not use the same ammount of money sacing the world, like feed the poor or either study on how we can save the ice-bears. Like seriously what does study of the universe help us with.

  9. I would love to learn more about how “loud” life would have to be at a given distance in order to be detectable at a particular range (let alone whether we could recognize that the signal was life-originated). Put another way, could we detect our own noise with these methods, and from how far away? I’d love to find resources on this question.

    It seems like, for example, that no method could detect Earth’s emmissions today from another galaxy. So by looking at other galaxies, we’re looking for life that dumps unimaginable amounts of energy into space, far more than we could ever generate let alone waste. What does that imply about what kind of life we’re looking for?

  10. I think there must be life beyond our planet (even intelligent beings). But I think, too, it’s really difficult two or more civilizations to make contact. Apart the fact of the impossible distances in the universe, we have to consider the thousands of million of years that evolution involve.
    When you think about all this, the probability of two isolated civilizations (in space and time) to contact each other is really, really small…
    Maybe the time is a bigger hindrance than distance…

  11. anyone who thinks theres no life out there is the modern equivalent of a flat-earther. same goes for anyone who thinks aliens didnt come here already, just look at all the ‘myths’ from around the world and see how they add up to eachother. even ancient artwork from the stone ages shows aliens. yet its interesting that humanity finally starts to look for it instead of hiding in a box, afraid to be probed

  12. Can’t until the ET’s come here and perform their equivalent of civilizing the the natives. Perhaps they cure all sickness and eliminate death by turning some humans into bio-putty to fix their space ships. 🙂

  13. Just wondering why every ETs in the cosmos is so quite. Yet we humans are saying “Hey! look over here, RIGHT HERE! What’s UP?”

  14. Let it be conveyed to Mr. Yuri Milner that the venture of financing the search for extraterrestrial life will be pure wastage of his hard earned money because the very adopted paradigm of physics has been already proved as incorrect. Under the incorrect paradigm the so-called physicists just cannot search for extraterrestrial life because life per se is not the purely physical activity. The whole issue is in the knowledge of the physicists of the world as there is a standing open challenge to that effect which everybody could see at http://www.worldsci.org/php/index.php?tab0=Abstracts&tab1=Display&id=6476&tab=2 and http://www.gsjournal.net/Science-Journals/Essays/View/4018. Complete details are available at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/adopted-paradigm-physics-incorrect-shafiq-khan?trk=prof-post. The perusal of these links will reveal to everybody that these so-called physicists are deceiving Mr. Yuri Milner to cheat him by grabing his money. I know for certain that the end result after spending 100 Million will be either complete failure or he and the world will be cheated with some misinterpreted & manipulated results.

  15. It’s exciting and gratifying to know your father is involved in this important project. I had the opportunity of interviewing him some years ago and recording him explaining the “Drake Equation” for a planetarium program I produced for the Hayden. Remarkable man.

  16. @Paul.D. Everyone seems to need “evidence”. To me the probability of life throughout the universe is a matter of logic, faith has nothing to do with it.
    Faith I reserve for ludites and flat earthers.

  17. I wonder why my message sent to this forum the same July 20 was never published, I received the email confirmation which gives me the warranty my message was received by your server although it was pending for revision before publication, I wonder if we cannot communicate freely between us because I don’t belong to the exclusive club of the “first world countries”, why to spend millions looking for distant intelligence, it sounds to me like not having any sense at all, we should first find ourselves as a united race living in a friendly way and respecting each culture’s features, just after that we should be in conditions to knocks at alien’s doors…well I suppose this one will neither be published.

    (ND: Hi, Carlos — sorry, your comments should be up now! We’ve got a bit of a backlog in the comment queue here.)

  18. sorry Nadia, I apologize with you, I just hadn’t understood the mechanics of the forum and though my message had been swallowed by some kind of cyber black hole 🙂
    Regarding to ET radio signal search, I don’t want to fall into a simple reasoning and request this money to solve health and famine in the world, I would first request every military development, investment and action to be
    focused in these problems before request the science stop doing experiments and research, and the ratio between military and science investment is very very unequal. A question that hit my head is why radio astronomers look for signals in the gigahertz frequencies, if some nearby civilization would have already detected our radio and TV broadcast in the past ~80-100 years if telegraph is also considered, they would probably try to respond in the same band of the received signal, your dad said some time ago our civilization is becoming silent due to the digitization of the broadcasted signals, if we also add the fiber optics undersea links, we will be more difficult to be detected, (which could be better in some cases…)
    I don’t imagine which kind of radio communication signals (if still in use) would be used by our race if we survive our own destruction and save our planet in i.e. 50000yrs, maybe someday not so far we understand the so called dark matter and energy (each one probably composed by other “smaller” components) who knows if we could communicate modulating signals with dark energy, or gravitational waves, or some quantum effect
    even surpassing the speed of light limit, think of this, if in only 50 years we are becoming silent regarding our initial radio emissions, how many stages in the communication technologies could a 100 million years old civilization could have gone through? of course, we cannot search signals using technologies we still don’t have, but we just must be aware of that in order not to spend time and effort in a search with not much probabilities to be successful, in many ways, we are trapped into our short technological and scientific development.
    Regards

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