The search for alien life has become a heavily funded reality, thanks to a $100m (£64m) boost from Russian tycoon Yuri Milner, announced today with the backing of UK physicist Stephen Hawking at the Royal Society in London.
The financial support promised has turned the venture into the biggest search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) ever undertaken.
The international endeavour, set to begin next year, will last a decade. Milner’s investment will pave the way for new cutting-edge radio and optical surveys using the world's most powerful radio telescopes – the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia.
SETI researchers will use the telescopes to listen for broadcast signals from the nearest million stars in the Milky Way, as well as stars in 100 other galaxies closest to us, monitoring several billion radio frequencies at a time.
"Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps, intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean,” said Hawking, speaking at the event.
"Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos, unseen beacons, announcing that here, on one rock, the Universe discovered its existence? Either way, there is no bigger question. It's time to commit to finding the answer – to search for life beyond Earth.
"We are alive. We are intelligent. We must know."
Milner is a Silicon Valley-based venture capitalist who invested in Facebook, Twitter and many other tech start-ups around the world. He has subsequently become known in the world of science, after he set up the Breakthrough Prize Foundation in July 2012. This organisation recognises top achievers in fundamental physics, life sciences and mathematics, offering awards of $3 million – the largest individual prizes in the world.
The SETI project, dubbed Breakthrough Listen, is part of the Foundation’s new Breakthrough Initiatives division. It will aim to collect more data from outer space in a single day than previous efforts collected over an entire year, said Geoff Marcy, professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley, because it will cover 10 times more of the sky and scan five times more of the radio spectrum, 100 times faster.
“It’s a huge gamble of course, but the payoff would be colossal,” said Lord Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, who also joined the launch. “The chance of finding life has risen a billionfold when we realised that Earth-like planets are not rare, but there are literally billions of them, within our own Galaxy.
“We don't know what we will see. It may be organic life or machines created by long-dead civilisations, but it would transform our view of the universe.”