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Breakthrough Initiatives: Stephen Hawking and Yuri Milner to search for extraterrestrial life

On Monday, Russian billionaire investor, Yuri Milner announces a new $100 million space initiative. Speaking at the Royal Society in London, Milner was joined by Stephen Hawking, Martin Rees, Frank Drake, Geoff Marcy, Pete Worden and Ann Druyan, “to announce the unprecedented $100 million global Breakthrough Initiatives to reinvigorate the search for life in the universe.”1

Breakthrough Initiatives, the name of the new programs, will seek out extraterrestrial life in a number of different ways. The first is called Breakthrough Listen:

Teliscope1 Breakthrough Initiatives: Stephen Hawking and Yuri Milner to search for extraterrestrial life

The Parkes Radio Telescope (left) and the Green Bank radio telescope (right).

Breakthrough Listen will be the largest search for extraterrestrial life ever undertaken. Utilizing two of the world’s largest radio telescopes (see above), Breakthrough Listen will scan and listen to the closest 1,000,000 stars for radio transmissions. This has been done before, through various search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) programs. However, the size and scope of the search will be orders of magnitude larger than SETI. In addition to scanning a much larger area, Breakthrough Listen will listen to a radio spectrum that is 5x larger than SETI. The program will also work in tandem with the Lick Telescope in California, which will search for optical laser transmissions.

Breakthrough Listen will last ten years, and has a $100 million funding commitment from Milner. The second initiative, Breakthrough Message, is much different than Listen:

Breakthrough Message aims to encourage debate about how and what to communicate with possible intelligent beings beyond earth. It takes the form of an international competition to create messages that could be read by an advanced civilization. The message must be in digital format, and should be representative of humanity and planet Earth.2

Breakthrough Initiatives, though, will be much more hands off with the Message component. Rather than facilitating and leading the research for Message, Breakthrough Initiatives is opting for a competition model, with the best messages receiving up to $1 million. However, the organization clearly points out that they have no intention of reaching out if or until a worldwide consensus is reached:

For the moment we have no plan to send these messages. The program is a way to learn about the possibilities and constraints associated with interstellar correspondence. To encourage global discussion on the ethical and philosophical issues of sending messages into space, we pledge not to transmit any message until there has been a wide-ranging debate at high levels of science and politics on the risks and rewards of contacting advanced civilizations.3

This is very much in line with Stephen Hawking’s beliefs on the matter. Way back in 2010, Hawking argued that intelligent extraterrestrial life almost certainly exists. However, he argued that it would be incredibly dangerous to attempt to contact these life forms:

To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational…If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the American Indians.4

While, certainly, the launch of Breakthrough Initiatives has been in the works for some time, it was no doubt aided by the public response to New Horizons and the exploration of Pluto. This is a great time to be interested in space!