A new $100 million, 10-year search for aliens was announced this week (20 July) by Stephen Hawking and other top scientists.
The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) consists of two initiatives. The first of the two initiatives is “Breakthrough Listen” and will be the most powerful search ever taken for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth. The project will survey the 1 million stars in the Milky Way closest to Earth, as well as the 100 closest galaxies.
The second initiative called “Breakthrough Message” and will fund an international competition to determine the content of messages sent from humanity to alien civilizations. The pool of prizes rewarding the best messages will total $1 million, and the competition is open to everybody.
The initiatives are funded by Silicon Valley technology investor Yuri Milner, who was trained as a physicist.
If a civilization based around one of the 1,000 nearest stars is transmitting at Earth with the power of a common aircraft radar these radio telescopes can detect it.
The project will also make use of the Automated Planet Finder Telescope at Lick Observatory in California to search for laser transmissions. From a “nearby” star 40 trillion kilometers away, it could detect a 100-watt laser emitting, wich is the same amount of energy as a normal household light bulb.
“If the Milky Way actually has other intelligent species sending their spacecraft across the galaxy to settle around other stars on other planets, they might communicate using lasers,” planet-hunting pioneer Geoffrey Marcy, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, said. “There could be a galactic Internet not borne by copper wires, not borne by fiber optics, but carried by laser beams crisscrossing the galaxy.”
All of the data from the Breakthrough Project will be available to the public. The plan is to develop open source software that will be compatible with other telescopes around the world, so the public can search for intelligent life and develop their own applications to analyze the data.
Breakthrough will also take advantage of crowdsourcing by joining and supporting SETI@home, the distributed computing project in which 9 million volunteers around the world donate spare computing power to search for signs of extraterrestrial life. “Collectively, it’s one of the world’s largest supercomputers,” Milner said at the Royal Society in London, where the initiative was announced.
However, it remains unknown what form any extraterrestrial intelligence might take, if it exists at all. “There may be organic life out there, or maybe machines created by long-dead civilizations,” said Rees, who is chairing the Breakthrough Listen committee. “But any signals, even if they are difficult to decode, would tell us that the concepts of logic and physics are not limited to the hardware in human skulls, and will transform our view of the universe.”
And making contact with aliens might be a very bad idea, Hawking warned. “We don’t know much about aliens, but we know about humans,” he said. “If you look at history, contact between humans and less intelligent organisms have often been disastrous from their point of view, and encounters between civilizations with advanced versus primitive technologies have gone badly for the less advanced. A civilization reading one of our messages could be billions of years ahead of us. If so, they will be vastly more powerful, and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.”
However, Rees did not share Hawking’s concerns, and suggested “they may know we’re here already.”
“We may get to a period in our future where we outgrow our evolutionary baggage and evolve to become less violent and shortsighted,” added Druyan, who will lead discussions on Breakthrough Message’s creative and cultural aspects. “My hope is that extraterrestrial civilizations are not only more technologically proficient than we are, but more aware of the rarity and preciousness of life in the cosmos.”