In a live press conference this morning, flanked by Stephen Hawking and other notable scientists, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced the financing of one of the largest efforts to find life beyond Earth. The $100 million initiative, dubbed Project Breakthrough Listen, will cover 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."
According to Business Insider, Milner's effort will not be a private search, but instead a collaboration between professionals and amateurs, with both data and software shared with the public. The search will cover 10 times the amount of sky previously scanned and process the resulting data nearly 100 times faster. And what should happen if after 10 years, we've yet to hear anything from above?
"I’ll fund it for another 10 years," he said. "This thing can go on forever. It’s our responsibility as human beings to keep looking for a signal."
At the event this morning, Hawking agreed, saying that there's no bigger question than that of life beyond our planet.
"We believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth," he said, "So in an infinite universe, there must be other occurrences of life."
He added: "It is time to commit to finding the answer to search for life beyond Earth."
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