The hunt for extraterrestrial intelligence received a huge boost today with the news that Russian billionaire Yuri Milner is bankrolling the search for alien life to the tune of $100 million.
During an event at the Royal Society in London earlier today, Milner was joined on stage by Stephen Hawking — physicist, cosmologist, and all-round clever man — to announce a new 10-year initiative designed to help find life throughout the universe.
The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, has been on-going for decades, however, it has hitherto been overshadowed by more “tangible” exploration ventures, such as NASA’s recent Pluto flyby.
While a number of big-name bodies have dedicated resources to scanning electromagnetic radiation for transmissions, including the University of California, Berkeley; Harvard; and the not-for-profit SETI Institute; today’s news represents one of the biggest boosts yet for SETI, and its single biggest cash donation ever.
There are various facets to the program,but the so-called “Breakthrough Listen” element promises to expand coverage of the heavens ten-fold, and will track around one million of our closest stars for messages.
Spread across a ten-year study period, the $100 million investment will be used to gain access to the Parkes Telescope in Australia, and West Virginia’s Green Bank Telescope. Such access has been largely out of reach for SETI scientists, given that these radio telescopes are in high demand across the broader astronomical fraternity. In effect, SETI scientists will now be able to use the telescopes thousands of hours each year, as opposed to a day-and-a-half.
To help engage the public, the project will also run a competition for the digital messages that best represent life on Earth, with a $1 million prize up for grabs.
Hawking, who will be an advisor on the project, said he believes life emerged “spontaneously” on Earth, so in an infinite universe there must be “other occurences” of life. “It’s time to commit to finding the answer to search for life beyond Earth,” he says.
Yuri Milner is best known for his investments across a range of high-profile tech companies, including Groupon, Facebook, Flipkart, Alibaba, and Xiaomi. But he also has a track record with science investments — three years ago he launched the Breakthrough Prize, which offers $3 million awards to recognize achievements in physics, maths, and life sciences.