Stephen Hawking and Yuri Milner announce $100M project to find ET

SETI
M31: The Andromeda Galaxy
Credit & Copyright: Robert Gendler (robgendlerastropixs.com)

SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, began in 1960 when the astronomer Frank Drake first used an 85 foot radio telescope to detect alien interstellar radio transmissions originating from outside our own solar system. Unfortunately, SETI has remained a fringe science with only small amounts of funding and small amounts of observation time on high class telescopes. Today, in a live webcast from London Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner and the physicist Stephen Hawking  revealed a new start for the search for extra terrestrials.

The project, called Breakthrough Initiatives, is made up of two central programs: Breakthrough Listen and Breakthrough Message. Breakthrough Listen will be the most intensive search for ET yet, and is 50 times more sensitive and covers 10 times more sky than previous searches for alien life. There are two telescopes contracted  to lead the search starting in January 2016, the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, the largest steerable telescope on the planet, and the Parkes Observatory in New South Wales.

Each telescope will scan the centre of the Milky Way and the entire length of the galactic plane  and  have the capacity to pick up transmissions from common aircraft radar from any of the closest 1,000 stars to Earth as well as basic transmissions from the centre of theMilky Way. They also have the capacity to listen for messages from the 100 galaxies to our own galaxy. Scientists will have the next 10 years to use thousands of hours of telescope time per year to listen to these planets and galaxies.

“Somewhere in the cosmos perhaps intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean,” said Hawking during the project’s announcement, “or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos — unseen beacons, announcing that here, on one rock, the Universe discovered its existence.”

An interesting feature of the project that might interest the stargazers among us, is the fact that it’s completely open source with all data and software being made for public consumption. The public offering with partner with  SETI@home, an already existing project run by the University of California, Berkley to help avoid conducting multiple duplicate searches.

Breakthrough Message will be unveiled at a later date and feature a contest tasking people with creating a unique digital message which describes mankind and the planet Earth. The winner of the contest will win a comfortable sum of $1 million and be the very first human to theoretically talk to alien life! Nice.

Stephen Hawking also spoke about how the search for extra terrestrial life was one of the most important scientific questions deserving of an answer and that he feels very confident in Breakthrough Initiative’s success although doesn’t rule out the possibility of us being the only intelligent life out there.

“If a search of this scale and sophistication finds no evidence of intelligence out there it will be a very interesting result,” he said, “it will not prove that we are alone, but it will narrow the possibilities. It is important for us to know if we are alone in the dark.”

What do you think of the announcement? Do you have any ideas for the Breakthrough Message competition? Keep them to yourself I say 😉

You can watch a video of the announcement below [courtesy of The Guardian]

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