The search for intelligent extra terrestrial life has begun and is spearheaded by Stephen Hawking. Hawking has invested $US100 million into a project which will actively seek signs of intelligent life during a ten-year-long project announced in London on Monday.
Australia’s Parkes telescope, in NSW, will be play a vital role in the search funded by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, a physicist by training, who made his fortune from early investments in startups such as Facebook.
Using some of the world’s largest radio telescopes, a team of scientists handpicked by Milner will oversee an initiative he calls Breakthrough Listen, a 10-year search for radio signals that could indicate the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.
“It’s the most interesting technological question of our day,” Milner said in an interview, noting that he became fascinated by the notion of extra-terrestrial life after reading astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s “Intelligent Life in the Universe” as a 10-year-old in Moscow.
Milner’s investment and interest in the project is fueled by his believe that other civilisations could teach us how to handle challenges such as allocating natural resources.
“If we’re alone, we need to cherish what we have,” he said. “The message is, the universe has no backup.”
Hawking, the theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author and director of research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge, will play an advisory role on the project.
On his Facebook page Hawking said, “I was delighted to join Yuri Milner today at the Royal Society in London for the launch of the Breakthrough Initiatives.
“This is a massive new astronomical program searching for evidence of intelligent life in our galaxy or beyond.”
Hawkings continued, “‘Are we alone in the Universe?’ is one of the most profound questions in science. We have the will, scientific talent and technology to explore it. Now, finally, we have the vision and resources to bring them all together.”
According to Dan Werthimer, an adviser to Milner’s project and the astrophysicist who directs the SETI@home project affiliated with the University of California in Berkeley this project is significantly bigger than any other in the field, known as the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence. Globally, less than $US2 million ($2.7 million) annually is spent on SETI, said Werthimer.
Today, due to technology improvements, including in computing power and telescope sensitivity, $US100 million will go much farther than in the early 1990s, the last time SETI had significant funding, scientists said.
The advances allow scientists to monitor several billion radio frequencies at a time, instead of several million, and to search 10 times more sky than in the early 1990s.
But any signals the scientists detect will likely have been created years ago, perhaps even centuries or millennia earlier. Radio signals take four years simply to travel between Earth and the nearest star outside our solar system.
According to Milner, in 10 years scientists should be able to listen for radio transmissions in the Milky Way galaxy, and as many as the 100 nearest galaxies.
One of the biggest costs lies in booking time at radio telescopes, including at Australia’s Parkes Observatory in New South Wales and the Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia.
Milner plans to book about two months a year at each site, which is great news for scientists who normally might get two days a year on the telescopes.
The team, led by scientists such as Peter Worden, who until earlier this year directed the NASA Ames Research Centre, will organise the radio signals they find, make the data public, and examine the data for patterns.
The goal lies less in understanding the signals than in establishing whether they were created by intelligent life rather than natural phenomena.
Scientists say the fact that humans have developed radio signalling makes it a good bet that others may use it as well.
“It doesn’t tell you anything about the civilisation, but it tells you a civilisation is there,” said Frank Drake, who with Carl Sagan sent the first physical message into space in 1972, the Pioneer plaques on board the Pioneer 10 U.S. spacecraft. An adviser to Breakthrough Listen, Drake is also chairman emeritus of the SETI Institute.
In addition to checking for radio signals, Breakthrough Listen will hunt for light-based signals using a telescope at the Lick Observatory in California.