The Breakthrough Initiatives: Galvanizing the search for life in our Universe

The Parkes Telescope located in Australia is just one of the assets that will be brought to bear in the ambitious new program(Credit: CSIRO/Shaun Amy)

At a Royal Society event in London earlier this week, Professor Stephen Hawking, Astronomer Royal Lord Martin Rees, and entrepreneur Yuri Milner announced an ambitious 100 million dollar initiative aimed at galvanizing the search for extraterrestrial life. The initiative would seek to make use of a blend of cutting edge telescopes and crowd sourcing to bring the hunt for life in line with present day technological capabilities.

Monday's event saw the announcement of two key programs – Breakthrough Listen (BL), and Breakthrough Message (BM). BL is unquestionably the most ambitious of the two endeavors, a 10 year mission seeking to scour the closest 1,000,000 stars on the galactic plane for signals that may constitute signs of intelligent life. What's more, the project's aspirations are not limited to the Milky Way. BL will strain to listen beyond our galaxy for signals from advanced alien races in 100 neighboring galaxies.

The lofty goals laid out in the address will be achieved by employing the project's impressive war chest to fund access to some of the world's premier space observatories such as the 64-meter Parkes radio telescope located in the Parkes Observatory, and the Automated Planet Finder Telescope at the Lick Observatory, California, and the 100-meter Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia.

The telescopes will scan the sky for radio signals as well as carry out the most in depth search to date for optical laser transmissions. According to Breakthrough Initiatives, the survey will cover 10 times more sky than any previous program of its kind, covering 5 times more of the radio spectrum with a sensitivity 50 times greater than the radio telescopes currently used to hunt extraterrestrial life, and working at 100 times the speed.

The capabilities of the project are such that Breakthrough Initiatives states that it will be able to detect a radio signal no more powerful than that used in a commercial aircraft coming from any of the thousand closest stars to Earth, or a laser with the equivalent energy of a standard household light bulb at a distance of 25 trillion miles.

To handle the vast amount of data generated by the observatories, BL intends to innovate powerful open source software that will enable members of the general public to make a material contribution to the project by creating their own search tools, and donating unused CPU space to boost the projects computing prowess.

Alongside BL, Breakthrough Initiatives intend to run an open competition, BM, which would open a dialogue regarding how and what the message should be if BL is actually successful in identifying the markers of intelligent life out in the stars.

The BM competition carries a US$1,000,000 prize pool. Submissions are required to be in digital format, and must constitute a representation of humanity and planet Earth. The challenge of the message lies with the task of relating information to a life form with no shared culture or experiences with humanity. Breakthrough Initiatives has pledged not to unilaterally transmit any message until a global debate has taken place.

Professor Stephen Hawking summed up the ethos and drive behind the project perfectly when he simply stated regarding humanity, "We are alive. We are intelligent. We must know."

Have a look at video presentation below, courtesy of Breakthrough Initiatives.

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