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A $100 Million Infusion for SETI Research

SETI received a much needed boost this morning as Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner, along with physicist Stephen Hawking and a panel including Frank Drake, Ann Druyan, Martin Rees and Geoff Marcy announced a $100 million pair of initiatives to reinvigorate the search. The first of these, Breakthrough Listen, dramatically upgrades existing search methods, while Breakthrough Message will fund an international competition to create the kind of messages we might one day send to other stars, although the intention is also to provoke the necessary discussion and debate to decide the question of whether such messages should be sent in the first place.

With $100 million to work with, SETI suddenly finds itself newly affluent, with significant access to two of the world’s largest telescopes — the 100-meter Green Bank instrument in West Virginia and the 64-meter Parkes Telescope in New South Wales. The funding will also allow the Automated Planet Finder at Lick Observatory to search at optical wavelengths. Milner’s Breakthrough Prize Foundation is behind the effort through its Breakthrough Initiatives division, a further indication of the high-tech investor’s passion for science.


Image: Internet investor Yuri Milner announcing the Breakthrough Listen and Breakthrough Message initiatives in London at The Royal Society. Credit: Breakthrough Prize Foundation.

Organizers explained that the search will be fifty times more sensitive than previous programs dedicated to SETI, and will cover ten times more of the sky than earlier efforts, scanning five times more of the radio spectrum 100 times faster than ever before. Covering a span of ten years, the plan is to survey the one million stars closest to the Earth, as well as to scan the center of the Milky Way and the entire galactic plane. Beyond the Milky Way, Breakthrough Listen will look for messages from the nearest 100 galaxies.

According to the news release from Breakthrough Initiatives, if a civilization based around one of the thousand nearest stars transmits to us with the power of the aircraft radar we use today, we should be able to detect it. A civilization transmitting from the center of the Milky Way with anything more than twelve times the output of today’s interplanetary radars should also be detectable. At optical wavelengths, a laser signal from a nearby star even at the 100-watt level is likewise detectable.

Frank Drake noted the changes in technology that have made such searches possible:

“Today we have major developments in digital technology and also the necessary telescopes to monitor billions of channels at the same time. But we needed the funding to allow all this to proceed. Fortunately there are private benefactors who realize the significance of the search. We will finally have stable funding so we can plan from one year to the next. This will be the most enduring search ever launched, a great milestone and our best chance for success.”


Image: Martin Rees, Frank Drake, Ann Druyan and Geoff Marcy at the announcement. Credit: Breakthrough Prize Foundation.

Geoff Marcy (UC-Berkeley) pointed out that we simply have no idea whether the nearest civilization is ten light years or 10 million light years away, but the Breakthrough Listen project will attempt to find out by scanning 10 billion frequencies simultaneously.

“We will listen to the cosmic piano every time we point a radio telescope, but instead of 88 keys, we’ll be using ten billion keys, with software designed to pick out any note with a frequency that is ringing consistently true against the background noise of all the other frequencies.”

Milner spoke of bringing a ‘Silicon Valley approach’ to SETI, one that will develop its own software tools using open source methods and maintaining open databases. Organizers estimate that what Breakthrough Listen generates will amount to the largest amount of scientific data ever made available to the public. Thanks to its open source nature, the software effort will be flexible enough to allow scientists and members of the public to use it and to develop their own applications for data analysis. As part of the crowdsourced aspect of Breakthrough Listen, Milner announced that the effort will join the SETI@home project at UC-Berkeley, in which nine million volunteers donate spare computing power to assist in the SETI search.

The project leadership team listed on the Breakthrough Initiatives site:

  • Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, Fellow of Trinity College; Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics, University of Cambridge.
  • Pete Worden, Chairman, Breakthrough Prize Foundation.
  • Frank Drake, Chairman Emeritus, SETI Institute; Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of California, Santa Cruz; Founding Director, National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center; Former Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy, Cornell University.
  • Geoff Marcy, Professor of Astronomy, University of California, Berkeley; Alberts SETI Chair.
  • Ann Druyan, Creative Director of the Interstellar Message, NASA Voyager; Co-Founder and CEO, Cosmos Studios; Emmy and Peabody award winning Writer and Producer.
  • Dan Werthimer, Co-founder and chief scientist of the SETI@home project; director of SERENDIP; principal investigator for CASPER.
  • Andrew Siemion, Director, Berkeley SETI Research Center.

Image: Stephen Hawking addressing the audience at the Breakthrough Initiatives announcement. Credit: Breakthrough Prize Foundation.

As to the Breakthrough Message initiative, it should be stressed that it is not an effort to actually send signals to other stars. This last is an important point, so let me quote directly from the news release: “This initiative is not a commitment to send messages. It’s a way to learn about the potential languages of interstellar communication and to spur global discussion on the ethical and philosophical issues surrounding communication with intelligent life beyond Earth.”

The news of these two Breakthrough Initiatives comes on July 20, the day humans first landed on the Moon in 1969. Hawking noted the scope of the challenge. We already know that potentially habitable planets are plentiful, and that organic molecules are common in the universe. Intelligence remains the great unknown. While it took 500 million years for life to evolve on Earth, it took two and a half billion years to get to multicelled animals, and technological civilization has appeared only once on our planet. Is intelligent life, then, rare? And if it exists, is it as fragile and as prone to self-destruction as we ourselves?

“We can explain the light of the stars through physics, but not the light that shines from planet Earth,” Hawking said. “For that, we must know about life, and acknowledge that there must be other occurrences of life in an infinite universe. There is no bigger question. We must know.”


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • J. Jason Wentworth July 24, 2015, 3:39

    To Rob Henry’s and ljk’s comments:

    That is something that isn’t generally appreciated (and the discovery of asteroid 2010 SO16 highlights it). The Sun-Earth L4 and L5 points are 93 million miles away from us, and at that great distance–and obscured by the Sun’s glare, as Rob Henry pointed out–any number of quite large objects, natural or artificial, could lurk unseen. Also, considering the sizes of the stable Lissajous orbits that are possible around both of these equilateral “L-points” (plus the fact that stable orbits around them need not be exactly in the ecliptic), the volumes of space to be searched for natural objects or Bracewell probes is literally astronomical! Also:

    He hit upon a very human thing which discourages such lines of inquiry, the notion that “We couldn’t possibly be *that* lucky, to make First Contact so easily, so it isn’t worth trying.” This attitude may stem from the “chain of demotions” of man’s place in creation, which began with the overthrow of the Earth-centered Ptolemaic solar system. Over the centuries, an attitude that “nature *always* ‘kicks us in the backside'” seems to have grown among the ranks of scientists, so that almost reflexively–to avoid disappointment–they approach inquiries with lowered expectations. (The notion that the nearest extrasolar technological civilization must be too far away to communicate with in a single generation also seems, in part, to have arisen due to the “We’re never *that* lucky” attitude.) But:

    This reminds me of people who never get ahead in life because they never grab opportunities and run with them, because they believe that -they’re- never that lucky. Well, one often makes one’s own luck. NOT searching for Bracewell probes in our solar system and NOT trying sending strong radio signals to the Sun/Earth L4 and L5 points (which Paul Davies thinks is worth doing), simply because of a belief that we couldn’t be so lucky as to get a response, is madness to me–never look for them, and you’ll never find them, and:

    Speaking of “being lucky” in such a venture, Duncan Lunan mentions an interesting bit of information on his website (Googling his name will bring up his website). On its “Man and the Stars”/Epsilon Boötis Revisited” page, he mentions British Interplanetary Society member Anthony Lawton, who suggested a possible natural explanation (involving the *Earth/Moon* L4 and L5 points–the explanation has problems, which Lunan discusses) for the radio signal Long-Delayed Echo (LDE) phenomenon, which some think could be due to an alien Bracewell probe in our solar system. As Lunan wrote:

    “Many books and articles said that Lawton conducted an act­ive radio search for LDEs, but in reality he stopped after get­ting an initial ‘reply,’ on the grounds that further trans­missions “would constitute a biassed experiment.” Conducting further experiments of this type, at even higher frequencies (to further eliminate the possibility of hoaxed transmissions from ham radio operators) and with rapid antenna polarization changes during the transmissions, could strengthen the case for the LDEs being from an artificial source in deep solar system space. Dr. Ronald Bracewell also suggested a likely “probe triggering response protocol,” which might initiate two-way communication with any Bracewell probe that might be out there. Plus:

    The comment by ljk that our minds are only remarkable to a degree, while true as far as it goes, can’t–at the moment–be shown to be true in comparison with greater hypothetical minds, because we just don’t know if there are any others out there. While I would like to think that we aren’t alone, I am willing to accept the possibility that we are, and not necessarily just in terms of intelligence, but possibly in terms of the Earth being the only abode of life anywhere in the universe. But:

    While the really accomplished people who make our technological society possible–the scientists, engineers, technologists, mathematicians, and philosophers–are fairly rare in the human population, they need not be. Many more children are interested in these fields (particularly science and technology) than actually go into them as careers, but for social reasons, plus a lousy public education “selling job” that makes such careers seem boring and tedious, many promising candidates for these fields are dissuaded from entering them. As far as the rest of humanity is concerned:

    Just looking around my apartment today, I noted numerous unspectacular but *positively* life-changing devices that people who were *not* top-level intellectuals invented and devised ways to produce at affordable prices. These inventions, which we take for granted, make the difference between just living and thriving in comfort, from arctic to tropical to desert conditions (and supporting them are many well-trained installation and repair personnel). That achievement I consider quite remarkable.

  • J. Jason Wentworth July 24, 2015, 6:08

    Rob Henry’s posting (regarding the asteroid 2010 SO16 being found only because it wandered far enough from the Sun/Earth L4 and L5 points to get out of the Sun’s glare, and how this might “hide” Bracewell probes as well) also suggests other possibilities:

    A telescope-equipped imaging spacecraft placed into solar orbit very close to the Sun’s surface (if it was close enough, it could even utilize a refractory metal solar sail to shade itself and to “hover” stationary above the Sun’s surface, as a statite rather than a satellite) could see objects–natural or artificial–that are orbiting the Sun inside the Earth’s orbit. (It is well to remember that when Halley’s Comet passed in front of the Sun in 1910, the nucleus–which is pretty large–wasn’t seen transiting the solar disc by any observatory.) Also:

    Vulcanoids, which are asteroids that are believed to exist in the same orbital region as Vulcan (the hypothesized intra-Mercury planet that was thought to be the cause of Mercury’s perihelion advancing–Einstein’s theory of Relativity provided the answer), can’t be seen from Earth, but such a spacecraft could see them plainly. In addition, *IF* (and I am skeptical but open-minded regarding this) any of the more credible UFO reports do describe extraterrestrial spacecraft, their local base of operations could–for all we know (and can see)–be similarly hidden close to the Sun (perhaps at the Sun/Earth L4 or L5 point), forever obscured by its glare. Now:

    I mention both of these possibilities (I’m more inclined to believe in Vulcanoids than in UFOs as alien spacecraft, because Mercury probably got at least some of its craters from such “Sun-hugging” asteroids) to show how even quite large things “in our own back yard”–like 2010 SO16–can go unseen indefinitely. For all we know, there could be an entire (though likely rather small) asteroid belt inside Mercury’s orbit, and Halley’s Comet’s unseen 1910 solar disc transit shows how even large natural or artificial objects in “intra-terrestrial” solar orbits could go completely unnoticed.

  • ljk July 25, 2015, 20:52
  • ljk July 27, 2015, 9:30

    For Release: July 20, 2015

    Green Bank Telescope Joins ‘Breakthrough Listen’ to Vastly Accelerate Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe

    The National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Telescope (GBT) will join in the most powerful, comprehensive, and intensive scientific search ever for signs of intelligent life in the Universe. The international endeavor, known as the Breakthrough Listen, will scan the nearest million stars in our own Galaxy and stars in 100 other galaxies for the telltale radio signature of an advanced civilization.

    In a contract signed with the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, significant funding — approximately $2 million per year for 5 years — will go to the GBT to participate in this exhilarating journey of discovery.

    “Beginning early next year, 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, which operates the GBT and other world-class radio astronomy facilities.

    “We are delighted to play such a vital role in hopefully answering one of the most compelling questions in all of science and philosophy: are we alone in the Universe?”

    In addition to the GBT, the Parkes Telescope in Australia will also be involved in this endeavor.

    Full article here:


    Green Bank – searching for aliens since 1960 (off and on).

  • ljk July 27, 2015, 16:11

    Ann Druyan explains how searching for alien others can make us care more about our home world and ourselves:


    Think when the Apollo astronauts started sending back those images of Earth from Luna.

    “In a very real sense this search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a search for a cosmic context for mankind, a search for who we are, where we have come from, and what possibilities there are for our future – in a universe vaster both in extent and duration than our forefathers ever dreamed of.”

    – From Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CETI), Carl Sagan, Editor, 1973, MIT Press, “Introduction”, pp. ix-x.

  • ljk July 30, 2015, 12:22

    Using teleoperated robots to build a radio observatory on the lunar farside:


  • ljk July 30, 2015, 13:16

    The NSF has deposited a roadblock for the Breakthrough Listen initiative to use the Arecibo radio observatory:


  • ljk August 12, 2015, 17:50
  • ljk August 17, 2015, 18:13

    Two new articles explaining Breakthrough Listen:




    To quote from The Space Review article:

    There were, though, some notable omissions in the Breakthrough Listen announcement. The Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, currently the world’s largest at 300 meters in diameter (a 500-meter radio telescope is under construction in China) has often been used by privately-funded SETI searches in the last two decades. However, last month’s announcement made no mention of the telescope.

    Robert Kerr, the director of Arecibo, told Scientific American last month that he had been approached by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation about participating in the project, but claimed he was caught in a catch-22: in order to accept the private funding that could supported continued use of the telescope, the observatory might lose its current NSF funding (Arecibo is also included in the NSF’s ongoing divestment review.) Any loss of funding, an NSF official said, would depend on the details of the agreement, which the NSF has not seen.

    Also absent from the announcement was the SETI Institute itself. That organization has led most private SETI efforts since the end of the NASA program, including observations at various radio telescopes and development of the Allen Telescope Array. “Today’s announcement from the Breakthrough Prize Foundation is terrific news for all involved in SETI research,” the organization said in a statement. “The SETI Institute congratulates our colleagues and looks forward to joining them as additional Breakthrough Prize Foundation projects are rolled out.”

    Worden said there were opportunities for future cooperation with the SETI Institute. “Certainly in the future we’re planning on discussions with the SETI Institute and the Allen Telescope Array about possible roles they could perform,” Worden said. “One of our key objectives here is to really mobilize the world’s instruments for a SETI search.”