The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, better known as SETI, has long operated with few financial resources but no lack of hope that astronomers can someday find intelligent life beyond earth. Today, scientists involved in the search have more reason for optimism than ever: Russian tech billionaire Yuri Milner is investing $100 million to fund the group’s efforts over the next ten years.
SETI astronomers will now have more access to the world’s most powerful telescopes, new equipment to detect radio signals and lasers that aliens might use for communications, and additional staff to monitor and analyze the data.
Milner is calling this initiative “Breakthrough Listen,” and he’s enlisted famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and Lord Martin Rees, the UK’s astronomer royal, among others, to guide the venture.
Milner also announced $1 million in funding for a project called “Breakthrough Message,” an international competition to create digital missives that could potentially be sent to aliens, if and when the aliens are discovered. No messages will be sent into space for now, though. Hawking has cautioned against trying to broadcast messages to aliens, saying that the interaction could be like when European colonialists first arrived in the Americas, ”which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”
Hawking, speaking at the launch of Breakthrough Listen, said that aliens may have already seen us—and that detecting them may be crucial for humankind’s surival. ”Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps, intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean.” Whether or not aliens are out there, and whether or not they know we are here, Hawking said, is something that “we must know.”
The fact that humans have not yet discovered any evidence of intelligent life, despite the existence of an estimated 1 billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy, is known as the Fermi Paradox.