Renowned Russian magnate Yuri Milner, whose reputation was forged through astute investments in social media giants like Facebook, is embarking on an audacious venture. This time, the former theoretical physicist turned tech mogul is committing a staggering $100 million towards humanity’s most ambitious quest – the pursuit of extraterrestrial intelligence. Unveiled recently, the ambitious “Breakthrough Listen” project is set to conduct an unprecedented decade-long survey of the cosmos, combing through the skies for potential signals from advanced alien civilizations.
The outcome, however, is far from assured. Milner invokes the spirit of President John F. Kennedy’s moonshot declaration, emphasizing the importance of confronting challenging questions. At an event staged on July 20, strategically aligned with the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, Milner introduced Breakthrough Listen alongside prominent figures in the scientific community, including luminaries such as Frank Drake, known for the Drake equation that estimates the count of detectable extraterrestrial societies. Yet another figure present was Geoff Marcy, a distinguished astronomer celebrated for his contributions to exoplanet discovery. Although eminent physicist Stephen Hawking was also present, he wasn’t at the helm of the initiative.
With an arsenal of cutting-edge technology at their disposal, the assembled scientific minds are poised to revolutionize the search for cosmic companions. At the core of their strategy lies a substantial investment in observation resources. This entails securing thousands of hours annually on two of Earth’s most potent radio telescopes: the Green Bank Telescope located in West Virginia and the Parkes Telescope situated in New South Wales, Australia. Accompanying these radio telescopes is a specialized optical variant stationed at California’s Lick Observatory. In unison, these instruments will scrutinize a sky expanse ten times greater than prior efforts, covering the “quiet zone” of the radio wave spectrum, which is untainted by terrestrial interference or cosmic noise. This chosen frequency range is predicated on the notion that advanced civilizations would broadcast within it for potential audibility.
Another integral component involves procuring advanced electronics capable of managing the deluge of data amassed during the survey. A dedicated team at the University of California’s Campbell Hall has been designated to engineer the requisite hardware and software. While these concepts have lingered within the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) domain for decades, they’ve been stymied by limitations in computational power and financial resources. Milner’s philanthropic endowment effectively transforms the landscape.
Crucially, the collected data will be shared with the public, democratizing the pursuit of interstellar companionship. Breakthrough Listen’s involvement in SETI@home allows individuals to contribute their computer’s processing capacity towards sifting through SETI data, fostering a collaborative global effort. Milner’s impetus for this substantial investment stems from recent revelations brought forth by NASA’s Kepler mission, indicating an abundance of potentially habitable exoplanets in their stars’ habitable zones. This discovery, coupled with advancements in computing prowess and the accessibility of observatories, has breathed new life into SETI research, which has long grappled with funding challenges. Despite the uncertainties surrounding the endeavor, Milner envisions a future of prolonged commitment, eagerly pursuing a question that he deems captivating enough to warrant extended exploration.