A project launched with much fanfare in 2015 has begun scanning the skies for hints of intelligent extraterrestrial life.
The Parkes radio telescope in New South Wales, Australia, is now surveying 1 million stars in the Milky Way along with nearby galaxies.
It's all part of the Breakthrough Listen Project, a passion project of billionaire Yuri Milner, Russia's most influential tech investor. The goal is a big one, but as the project website explains, the newly updated telescope is up for the task:
The radio surveys cover 10 times more of the sky than previous programs. They also cover at least 5 times more of the radio spectrum – and do it 100 times faster. They are sensitive enough to hear a common aircraft radar transmitting to us from any of the 1000 nearest stars.
The Parkes telescope has been refitted with a "multibeam" receiver that uses 13 beams to observe large pieces of sky; previously, a single-beam receiver previously has been used. That's how the scope will be able to listen over such vast stretches of the universe, and so quickly. The radio telescope will devote 1,500 hours toward the project in 2018 alone. The project has previously relied on the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia.
The new setup will also allow scientists to better distinguish between signals of interest from afar and human-made noises, such as radio interference from airplanes, cellphones and satellites.
'We're probably not alone'
Back in 2015, Milner announced the financing of one of the largest efforts to find life beyond Earth. At the time, he was flanked by Stephen Hawking and other notable scientists. (Hawking died in March 2018.) The $100 million initiative was intended to fuel an initial period of 10 years and focus on finding artificial radio signals from more than 1 billions stars and 100 galaxies beyond the Milky Way.
"We now know for a fact that there are candidates in the galaxy, a few billion," Milner told Time. "Telescope time used to be harder to get, but now there is an opportunity for private endeavors to buy telescope time. And finally Moore’s Law: we can design a backend infrastructure capable of processing huge amounts of data much faster than ever before. We want to marry the best of Silicon Valley’s capabilities with the best science can offer."
In interviews with The New York Times, researchers close to earlier efforts in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, called Milner's financing both a "miracle" and beyond their "wildest dreams." The article states that one third of the cash will go toward building new equipment to detect signals, one third for the hiring of students and scientists, and the remainder to purchasing time with the world's largest radio telescopes.
Milner, who made his fortune with timely investments in tech companies like Facebook and Twitter, will also sponsor a $1 million contest for suggestions of messages to be sent back to alien worlds in the event we make contact.
"The universe is not teeming with life, but we’re probably not alone," he told Time. "If we were alone, it would be such a waste of real estate. But I don’t want to be the judge, I just want to help find an answer."
"With these new capabilities, we are scanning our galaxy in unprecedented detail," said Danny Price, Parkes Project scientist with the Breakthrough Listen project at UC Berkeley. "By trawling through these huge datasets for signatures of technological civilizations, we hope to uncover evidence that our planet, among the hundreds of billions in our galaxy, is not the only one where intelligent life has arisen."
This story was originally published in July 2015 and has been updated with more recent information.