Ever since our species trained its eyes on the stars, the question of life on other planets has been at the forefront of our collective consciousness.
Professor Stephen Hawking has backed two new ‘breakthrough’ initiatives that will focus on searching for alien life.
The financial support promised has turned the venture into the biggest search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) ever undertaken. Yet despite its high public visibility and near-ubiquity in blockbuster Hollywood science fiction, throughout most of its 55-year history SETI has languished on the fringes of scientific research, garnering relatively scant funding and only small amounts of dedicated observation time on world-class telescopes.
“Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps, intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean”, said Hawking, speaking at the event.
“There is no bigger question”, Hawking said. Milner’s investment will pave the way for new cutting-edge radio and optical surveys using the world’s most powerful radio telescopes – the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia.
In a philanthropic effort, the internet entrepreneur announced through a live webcast at The Royal Society in London that he would donate the money over the next ten years to “discover whether intelligent life exists beyond Earth”.
“We should not read too much into the lack of confirmed signals”, said the former physics student, who is named after Yuri Gagarin, the first man in outer space.
The Breakthrough Initiative is being funded by US-based billionaire and Silicon Valley technology investor and physicist Yuri Milner, who wants to put the entire weight of modern day technology behind this mission.
A signal from Andromeda, the nearest major galaxy, would need only the power of two times the Three Gorges Dam in China to reach Earth.
He said the search will be entirely transparent and will rely on open- source software so findings can be shared throughout the world.
“It’s a huge gamble, of course, but the pay-off would be so colossal… even if the chance of success is small”, the astrophysicist said.
“We believe life arose spontaneously on earth”.
“Is there life out there?”
The other initiative – Breakthrough Message – is a competition to create “digital messages that represent humanity and planet Earth”. It plans to cover 10 times more of the sky than previous programmes and scan five times more of the radio spectrum, 100 times faster.
There is no commitment to send any messages into space, and the project should spark discussion about whether humans should be sending messages at all out into the void.