Search for extraterrestrial life receives $100 million

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Millions in new funding will support the scanning of the stars for signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life after a large donation announced this week.

Yuri Milner, founder of Breakthrough Initiatives, announced he was funding the start of a $100 million, 10-year project called Breakthrough Listen — which aims to support the search for extraterrestrial intelligence — at a press conference at the Royal Society in London on Monday.

“The Breakthrough Initiative will be a more sustained and sensitive search than was ever possible before. Each day, it will gather more data than a year of any previous searches,” said Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal and chair of an advisory committee to Breakthrough Listen, in an email.

For the project, UC Berkeley will collaborate with the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, the Australia Telescope National Facility and the University of California’s Lick Observatory.

Elinor Gates, an astronomer at the Lick Observatory, said the “Automated Planet Finder” telescope at Lick would be able to monitor a thousand nearby stars and a hundred nearby galaxies for laser signals, specifically. Unlike the other two telescopes, which record and sense radio waves, the APF sorts light into various colors “much like a prism divides sunlight into a rainbow.”

Dan Werthimer, chief scientist of the [email protected] project, said the inspiration for Breakthrough Listen partly came several months after Milner attended a lecture called “Are we alone?” by campus professor of astronomy Geoff Marcy.

“I think it’s a profound question: are we alone? It’s a question that humans have probably been asking for hundreds of thousands of years,” said Werthimer. “We finally have the technology and the science where we might be able to answer that question.”

The new funding will allow for instruments to record and analyze hundreds of times more data from a hundred thousand stars, according to Werthimer. The ATNF telescope in Australia will observe the Southern hemisphere, while the Green Bank and Lick Observatory will observe the Northern hemisphere, he said.

“The idea is that earthling sends off television, radio, etc., and maybe ET does that, too,” Werthimer said.

[email protected], launched 16 years ago at UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory, will also be taking part in analyzing new data from Breakthrough Listen, Werthimer said. [email protected] utilizes volunteer computing from millions of “citizen scientists” around the world to store data and analyze the most interesting data from SETI telescopes.


One of the SETI spectrometers. David MacMahon/Courtesy Photo

The initiative may even find more than aliens, according to Werthimer. Not only is the data useful for a number of astronomical pursuits, but the search may be the start of or reveal a type of “galactic Internet” — a massive, universe-wide communication system transmitted by radio and lasers over vast stretches of space — Werthimer said.

“We’re an emerging civilization — we’re just getting in the game,” he said. “It’s profound either way if we find the universe is teeming in life and with civilizations,” he said, suggesting that Earth might possibly be able to “join” a galactic Internet that already exists. “The other thing is also profound, that we really are alone. Then we really have to work to preserve our life on Earth.”

UC Berkeley has the largest SETI program of any university, according to David MacMahon, research and development engineer at the campus’s department of astronomy. He said the Breakthrough donation was an “unprecedented amount of money” at a time when research funding is “tight.”

Much of the previous SETI observations had to be done by “piggy-backing” on other radio astronomy observations and didn’t give researchers the freedom to control the frequency range or the telescope direction, according to MacMahon.

“One of the amazing things about Breakthrough Listen is that it will dedicate huge amounts of time to SETI on some of the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescopes,” he said.

The Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, which will be used for Breakthrough Listen, is the largest steerable radio telescope in the world and can record a bandwidth of up to 10 gigahertz, MacMahon said.

Data from the telescopes are analyzed using on-site spectrometers — manufactured individually by UC Berkeley researchers — that help divide the recorded frequencies into about 1.5 billion channels, each of which is then checked for unusual activity and possibly marked for further analysis.

Many astronomical phenomena have yet to be explained, MacMahon added. For instance, astronomers are still trying to understand fast radio bursts, or powerful, unexplained waves that appear to come from very far away.

“There’s a great deal of debate in the (scientific) community as to where they are coming from and why they are there,” MacMahon said, adding that potential explanations include evaporating black holes or collapsing neutron stars.

As the spectrometers mark a number of unusual observations, the data can be very useful for other research that also looks at radio signals from space, such as the research into fast radio bursts.

MacMahon said the Berkeley SETI team hopes to add eight spectrometers to the Green Bank Telescope with the new funding.


The spectrometers help to parse through all the incoming data and identify the frequencies with the most unusual activity. David MacMahon/Courtesy Photo

“The spectrometers for Breakthrough Listen will start out the same way, but I think we’ll need to revise and reinvent and innovate how we do things to handle all the expanded parameter space we’ll have available to us now,” he said.

The technology used for SETI has been useful for other scientific pursuits, according to Werthimer. He said the digital signal processing instrumentation was also used to observe gravity waves and black holes, to discover a planet made from solid diamond, and even for brain research.

As for the future of SETI, MacMahon remains optimistic. “The field of radio astronomy is full of serendipitous discoveries,” he said.



Contact Abdullah Mirza at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @mirza_abd.

A previous version of this article quoted Elinor Gates as saying a Lick Observatory telescope sorts light “much like rain divides a rainbow.” In fact, she said “much like a prism divides sunlight into a rainbow.”