In our infinitely large Universe, the probability of intelligent alien life existing is high. But while intergalactic travel is unavailable to humans, how do we attempt to identify alien civilizations if they are out there among the stars? Breakthrough Listen, one of the pioneering Breakthrough Initiatives and the project that, in recent years, has helped revitalize SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), may have the answer.
Before diving into the latest developments in the program’s search for extraterrestrial intelligence, let’s look at Breakthrough Listen’s fascinating story. It involves science thought leader Stephen Hawking; Yuri Milner, the man behind the Breakthrough Prize (or the “Oscars of Science”); and the millions of dollars he has donated to science philanthropy via his commitment to his Giving Pledge.
Funding Scientific Discoveries Through the Giving Pledge
Ten years ago, an Israeli billionaire and tech investor Yuri Milner and his wife Julia joined the Giving Pledge. Driven by a lifelong fascination with the subject of science and extraterrestrial life, in his Giving Pledge letter, Yuri Milner described his wish to boost scientific brilliance and breakthroughs with private capital.
The Breakthrough Prize and Stephen Hawking
In partnership with Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, and Ann Wojcicki, in 2012, Julia and Yuri Milner launched the Breakthrough Prize, the world’s largest award for science and mathematics. One year later, Stephen Hawking won the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.
Yuri Milner had long considered Stephen Hawking a personal hero. When picking a scientific field to benefit from private funding, Yuri Milner turned to Stephen Hawking for guidance. The theoretical physicist reminded the philanthropist of that big question – are we alone in the Universe? – and suggested Yuri Milner choose SETI.
The Breakthrough Initiatives
In 2015, Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking launched the Breakthrough Initiatives, a set of space science programs that would revolutionize the search for alien civilizations and the future of humanity as a space-faring species.
The first Breakthrough Initiative was Listen, followed throughout the years by Watch, Starshot, Message, and Discuss. These programs involve searching for nearby habitable planets, planning a nanocraft space mission to Alpha Centauri, encouraging the public to craft a message for alien civilizations, and bringing academics together to spark new ideas about space exploration and extraterrestrial intelligence.
We Are Listening
Backed by $100 million in funding and the use of the world’s best telescopes, Breakthrough Listen is humanity’s largest-ever attempt to identify alien civilizations. How? By listening out for “technosignatures” or signals that might originate from intelligent life beyond our galaxy. Our radios here on Earth produce signals that differ from the sort of natural energy radiating from a star. So, assuming alien communications are the same, Listen is on the hunt for unnatural-looking radio signals from fixed points in distant space.
Listen’s Latest Discoveries
A recent study from the Jodrell Bank Center for Astrophysics Director Michael Garrett and Berkeley SETI Research Center Director Andrew Siemion announced an evolution in Listen’s approach to analyzing data.
Before, SETI observations of a target star came cluttered with other cosmic foreground and background objects. Thanks to the European Space Agency’s Gaia telescope, Garrett and Siemion have now obtained far more accurate measurements for observations and, as a result, have revealed more than 140,000 objects that were previously hidden.
Among the discoveries are exotica such as galactic nuclei, interacting and radio galaxies, and a galaxy whose gravity has formed a gravitational lens. But the list also includes several neighboring galaxies and galaxy groups that, while many millions of light-years from Earth, could prove an ideal technosignature-hunting ground for Breakthrough Listen.