Artist’s conception of Kepler 186f, an Earth-size exoplanet in the habitable zone of its star that might harbor extraterrestrial life.

Artist’s conception of Kepler 186f, an Earth-size exoplanet in the habitable zone of its star that might harbor extraterrestrial life.

NASA

Internet tycoon takes search for extraterrestrial intelligence to the next level

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) received a huge shot in the arm today thanks to Russian internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner, who will devote $100 million to a much beefed-up 10-year effort to detect signals from other technological civilizations in the universe. The project will make use of two of the world’s largest radio dishes and an optical telescope, and will develop new digital signal processing technology to monitor 10 billion radio frequencies simultaneously. “It’s time to answer the question of whether there is life beyond Earth,” physicist Stephen Hawking told a press conference in London today, where Milner announced the plan.

Milner has amassed a large fortune investing in Web-based companies, including Facebook, Twitter, Zynga, Spotify, and Groupon. In 2012, he established himself as a benefactor of science through a series of Breakthrough Prizes with individual awards of $3 million, the largest in the world. Today’s “Breakthrough Listen” project aims to quicken the pace of SETI with increased amounts of telescope time, improved technology, and the development of new open-source software to process the huge quantities of data it will produce.

SETI has been going on since 1960, when radio telescopes became sensitive enough to detect signals from another planet if it was broadcasting signals similar to those which our civilization does. Researchers developed devices that could monitor millions of frequencies at once for any signal that looked at all different from that produced by astronomical objects or the natural background. At first funded by universities and NASA, public funding for SETI was axed by Congress in the early 1990s. Since then, the nonprofit SETI League has received funding of a few million dollars a year from private donors.

Milner told today’s press conference that Breakthrough Listen would “take the search for intelligent life in the universe to a whole new level.” It would be the most comprehensive search, and would be faster, more sensitive, and cover the broadest swath of the electromagnetic spectrum. In addition to time on the 100-meter-wide Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the 64-meter Parkes Radio Telescope in New South Wales, Australia, the project will also use the 2.4-meter Automated Planet Finder Telescope at the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton near San Jose, California, to search for possible optical laser signals from another world. The 20th century, Milner said, was all about taking our first steps out into space and the solar system. “In the 21st century we will find out about life at the galactic scale.”

A team at the University of California, Berkeley, led by renowned exoplanet-hunter Geoff Marcy, will develop a signal processing system based on field-programmable gate arrays—a type of reconfigurable computer chip—and graphical processing units (GPUs) to crunch the 10 gigabytes of data per second produced by the survey. That's too much information to store in raw form, so the system will have look for potentially interesting signals on the fly. Marcy told the press conference that the data to support the idea that there is some form of life out there is becoming overwhelming. “I’d bet my house that [somewhere] in the nearest 100 star systems there are single-celled life forms flourishing,” he said.

U.K. Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, who will head the project’s advisory committee, said: “It’s a huge gamble, of course, but the payoff will be so enormous.” Everyone wants to know if we are alone in the universe, Rees said, and this project “gives us a better chance of getting an answer in our lifetime.”