Search for intelligent extraterrestrial signals gets enormous funding boost

For decades a small number of astronomers have been searching for evidence of intelligent signals from space, so far with no confirmed discoveries. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to discover, however, because they have barely begun to look at all the possibilities. Funding has been running only about a half-million dollars a year total, world-wide, entirely from private gifts. (NASA did provide a little support more than 20 years ago, but nitwits in Congress ridiculed the idea and insisted it stop.) To put the amount in perspective, half a million dollars is roughly 1/500 of the budget of the film Avengers: Age of Ultron.

However, that’s about to change. At a meeting of the Royal Society in London on July 20 — the 46th anniversary of the first Moon landing — Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced that he is giving $100 million to expand SETI over the next 10 years. According to an article from the website of the journal Nature:

… The initiative, called Breakthrough Listen, will see radio telescopes at Green Bank in West Virginia, the Parkes Observatory in Australia, and the Lick Observatory’s optical telescope in San Jose, California, scanning around one million stars in the Milky Way and a hundred nearby galaxies. Milner is also releasing an open letter backing the idea of an intensified search; it has been co-signed by numerous scientists, including physicist Stephen Hawking. “In an infinite Universe, there must be other life,” Hawking told luminaries at today’s launch event. “There is no bigger question. It is time to commit to finding the answer,” he said. …

Milner, who is bankrolling the project, made his fortune through investments in Facebook and other Internet businesses, and in 2012 established lucrative ‘Breakthrough’ prizes to reward excellence in the life sciences, fundamental physics, and mathematics. A particle-physics graduate, he jokes that his interest in SETI began in 1961, the year of his birth; he was named after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, instilling a life-long fascination with space and the possibility of alien life.

Paul Davies, a cosmologist and long-term supporter of SETI at Arizona State University in Tempe, who is not involved with Breakthrough Listen, says that he is “thrilled” by Milner’s initiative: “It’s fantastic that there still exist individuals who are not just rich but who have a cosmic vision that the whole of humanity can get behind,” he says.

The small SETI community will be inundated with a torrent of data — potentially as much in a day as earlier SETI projects collected in a year, Milner estimates. The data will be publicly available, to allow enthusiasts to join the search; Breakthrough Listen will also partner with the established SETI@home project that connects people’s home computers and uses them to crunch data. “The results belong to everyone equally,” says Milner, adding that transparency is particularly important in a project searching for aliens because “there are so many conspiracy theorists”. He also plans a Breakthrough Message competition — offering a $1-million pool of prize money — to construct a digital message to transmit to potential extraterrestrials (though there is no commitment to sending out the message).

Drake argues that Breakthrough Listen will have a positive impact on the wider astronomy community. The investment has saved the relatively old Green Bank and Parkes telescopes from the threat of closure, he says, as governments divert funds to larger-scale, higher-resolution projects such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). And the sky survey might discover more pulsars, and help to home in on the origin of mysterious “fast radio bursts” — pulses lasting only a few milliseconds. …

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