SETI to Spearhead the Hunt for Extraterrestrials with a $100 million Donation

NASA’s bold declaration in April that it will find aliens by 2025 has created excitement on the prospect of alien hunting.  The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, space agencies and other institutions are joining the hype.          Furthermore, private organizations and individuals are pitching in funds to support the ambitious project.

Recently, SETI received a handsome donation of $100 million over the course of 10 years from internet investor Yuri Milner, founder of The Breakthrough Prize Foundation.  Milner signed a deal with the University of California, Berkeley, and its partners to fund Breakthrough Listen, the biggest, most comprehensive and most largely funded scientific SETI project to date.

Milner broke the good news on July 20 at The Royal Society, in London.  Present in the gathering were the bigwigs of physics and astronomy including Stephen Hawking, Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, SETI research pioneer Frank Drake, UC Berkeley astronomy professor Geoff Marcy,  Andrew Siemion, and foundation chairman Pete Worden.

To kick off this extraterrestrial project, the Breakthrough Prize Foundation has contracted with two of the world’s largest radio telescopes namely the 100-meter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the 64-meter Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia, for telescope observation time to search for signs of alien life. The multimillion grant will also fund the Automated Planet Finder at the Lick Observatory to track optical laser signals coming from other planets.

Dan Werthimer, head of SERENDIP, the world’s longest-running SETI project and  scientific director of SETI@home, a crowd-sourced computing project explained that the increased telescope time will make “SETI searches 50 times more sensitive than today and cover 10 times more sky, while new signal processors will be able to analyze five times the number of radio wavelengths 100 times faster.”

Werthimer goes on to say, “The sensitivity we get from having dedicated telescope time and better receivers is key if we are looking for artifacts of civilization, such as TV signals, which are incredibly weak. Our search will be about a hundred times better than anything we’ve done before. This is beyond my wildest dreams.”

Marcy, operator of the optical SETI project at Lick also commented, “We learned from the NASA Kepler mission that our Milky Way Galaxy contains tens of billions of Earth-size planets at lukewarm temperatures, any of which might harbor life.”

The project will also have UC Berkeley “build high-speed digital electronics and high-bandwidth signal processing instruments to gather and analyze the radio and optical data collected by the telescopes, and will train the next generation of SETI scientists”, explains Werthimer. “This is about five times the amount of money now spent worldwide on SETI, part of which will be used to purchase dedicated time on telescopes that previously we were lucky to get only a day or two per year,” he added.

In an interview, Peter Worden, chairman of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, offered an explanation for the foundation’s decision of partnering with UC Berkeley. “UC Berkeley is renowned for its frontier digital signal processing technology, able to analyze billions of voltages per second coming from the backend of the radio telescopes.”

The best in the space world were assembled for the project, with Werthimer, Marcy and Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center, sitting as members of the initiative’s leadership team steering the project. Drake, the founding father of the SETI field, chairman emeritus of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and founding director of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center is also part of the team. Rees will oversee the advisory board of Breakthrough Listen.

In an interview, Siemon expressed the team’s excitement. “The Breakthrough Listen initiative is our first opportunity to test the fundamental hypothesis behind modern radio SETI. We will be able to search the entire ‘quiet’ portion of the radio spectrum that is accessible to us from the surface of Earth, from a few hundred megahertz where our own TV stations transmit, to 10 gigahertz where we communicate with nearby spacecraft. This is a dramatic leap forward in our bandwidth, and will offer the best opportunity in history to detect advanced life beyond Earth.”

Werthimer also commented, “Even if we don’t detect a signal from advanced life beyond Earth, the detection limits obtained by the Breakthrough Listen searches will be the most rigorous ever achieved, and the technology developed will lay the groundwork for SETI searches for many decades to come.”


Image: 100-meter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope