Search For Life in the Cosmos

A new, $100 million initiative will fund SETI searches at the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia (above) and Australia’s Parkes Observatory. Can you hear me? More than a half-century after the first modern search for communicating extraterrestrial life, humanity’s quest to find intelligent beings in the cosmos is getting a much-needed boost. Today, Silicon Valley billionaire Yuri Milner announced a $100 million project that will scan the sky for radio signals from other worlds. Called Breakthrough Listen, it will be the most powerful search for extraterrestrial intelligence ever undertaken on Earth.

“In one day, Breakthrough Listen will collect more data than a year of any previous search,” said Milner, who’s also behind the lucrative Breakthrough Prizes in physics, mathematics and the life sciences. “The scope of our search will be unprecedented.”

Milner announced the 10-year initiative at a ceremony in London that included remarks from theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who discussed the ubiquity of life’s building blocks in the cosmos, as well as the possibility that Earth’s lights might already be gleaming in alien eyes.

“It’s time to commit to finding the answer to the search for life beyond Earth,” Hawking said. “We are life, we are intelligent, we must know.”

Snooping on the Cosmos

Beginning in early 2016, Breakthrough Listen will eavesdrop on stars in 100 neighboring galaxies, the galactic plane and disk, and the 1 million stars closest to Earth. So far, the Green Bank Telescope, at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia, and the Parkes Observatory in New South Wales, Australia will be helping look for celestial signals of otherworldly origin.

“Approximately 20 percent of the annual observing time on the GBT will be dedicated to searching a staggering number of stars and galaxies for signs of intelligent life via radio signals,” said Tony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, in a statement.

These telescopes will peer at the sky in a multitude of frequencies, searching for the answer to that timeless question of whether the cosmos is filled with chatter, or if Earth is just a lonely beacon, murmuring messages into a sea of silent, sterile worlds. There is also an optical SETI component that will search for laser signals from other worlds, as well as a competition for interstellar message design (details TBD). Data from the project will be publicly available, ready for digging into by anyone with the tools and motivation. In fact, Milner said, it’s totally possible that any signal in those data might not be found by one of the professional astronomers involved in the project.

“We have the greatest opportunity ever to detect intelligent folks in the Universe,” says astronomer Geoffrey Marcy of UC-Berkeley, who is one of the co-investigators leading the project at Green Bank. Joining Marcy as a co-investigator on the Green Bank portion of the work is astronomer Frank Drake, of the SETI Institute.

“The plausibility of extraterrestrial intelligence has grown, the promise of success in searches has grown,” says Drake, who’s better known to me as Dad. “We will finally have stable funding so that we can plan from one year to the next, we can hire very talented people to carry out the work…it may take a long time, but it’s our best chance to get all of those treasures of knowledge that will accrue if we do indeed detect another intelligent civilization.”

From $2,000 to $100 million

In 1960, Dad performed the first modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Called Project Ozma, it looked for signals from alien worlds orbiting the nearby sun-like stars Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti. From April through July, astronomers monitored a handful of radio frequencies for artificial signals.

“The entire budget for the project was exactly $2,000,” Dad says. (Project Ozma inspired the name of this blog.)

The next year, Dad crafted his eponymous equation. It predicts – based on seven factors – the number of detectable, communicating civilizations in our Milky Way galaxy. Some of those factors, such as the prevalence of planets orbiting other sun-like stars, were total question marks in 1961. No one had ever really tackled these unknowns, so strange was the idea that such a thing could be scientifically respectable.

Even though the skies have stayed eerily quiet, in the half-century since Project Ozma, SETI has grown from an infant field on the fringe of science to a well-known endeavor. Now, some of the factors in the Drake Equation are very well known – including the prevalence of planets around other stars (others, alas, are just as vexing as in 1961). In fact, we now know that most stars have planets, and that a good percentage of those planets happen to be Earth-like.

“We learned only last year from the NASA Kepler mission that one in five sun-like stars harbors an Earth-size planet at lukewarm temperatures, suitable for life,” Marcy says.

A Sky Filled With Life

Based on that estimate, there could be tens of billions of habitable worlds in our galaxy. If you want to see a star that might incubate a habitable planet, all you need to do is go outside on a clear night and gaze into a small patch of sky. What’s more, Marcy says, astronomers are finding that the cosmos has been liberally sprinkled with the building blocks of life as we know it – organic molecules that can be used to form proteins and nucleic acids.

“Among all of those billions of planetary petri dishes, who could doubt that some of them sparked biochemical reactions that spawned replicating molecules, something like DNA,” Marcy says. “The only remaining question is how often Darwinian evolution leads to brainy creatures.”