Scientists working on “Listen,” a Breakthrough Initiative from theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and billionaire Yuri Milner, have scanned more than 140,000 cosmic objects for evidence of other civilizations, thanks to a novel way of analysing radio telescope data. The research could open up vast new regions of space to scrutiny by SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) scientists and help uncover signals from “powerful transmitters” in deep space. If the astronomical programme manages to detect a “technosignature,” it could answer one of humanity’s biggest questions: Are we alone in the Universe?
Let’s explore Listen’s latest findings, the Breakthrough Initiatives’ Giving Pledge backstory, and how Yuri Milner, who created the Breakthrough Prize, began the project.
On the Hunt for Aliens
Breakthrough Listen is the largest-ever astronomical Earth-based programme to search for proof of alien life. The project leverages some of the world’s best telescopes and has vastly expanded the SETI mission, with radio surveys covering 10 times more of the sky and at least 5 times more of the radio spectrum than any other programme, 100 times faster.
In September 2022, two of Listen’s key investigators, Berkeley SETI Research Centre Director Andrew Siemion and Jodrell Bank Centre of Astrophysics Director Michael Garrett, published a study that places new constraints on technosignatures from outside our galaxy. Whereas previously, SETI struggled to eliminate superfluous cosmic objects during observations of a particular star, accurate calculations from the European Space Agency’s Gaia telescope have helped to render far more precise data.
Reassessing 469 of SETI’s target fields with the new technique has identified more than 140,000 galaxies, galaxy clusters, and astrophysical curiosities, such as gravitational lens systems, interacting galaxies, and various types of active galactic nuclei. This means that Listen has plenty of new targets for its alien-hunting telescopes. Siemion notes that while the programme is currently focusing on 100 nearby galaxies, in the future, it will observe large, cosmologically distant concentrations of stars to probe for bright and rare technosignatures.
Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Initiatives
Breakthrough Listen is unique in its mission and scope, but it isn’t the only Breakthrough Initiative from Yuri Milner. There are four other Breakthrough Initiatives:
- Breakthrough Watch, which is searching for habitable planets and primitive alien life
- Breakthrough Starshot, a pioneering mission to send light beam-propelled probes to our closest star system
- Breakthrough Message is a competition to design a message that non-human intelligent life can understand
- Breakthrough Discuss, an academic conference on space exploration and life in the Universe.
About Yuri Milner’s Giving Pledge and Breakthrough Prize
In 2012, the Israeli tech investor Yuri Milner and his wife Julia signed Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates’ Giving Pledge. Taking inspiration from his lifelong passion for science and cosmology, in his Giving Pledge letter, Yuri Milner wrote about his vision to fund scientific breakthroughs and help proliferate scientific ideas among people of all ages and from all backgrounds.
Partnering with Ann Wojcicki, Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan, and Mark Zuckerberg, the Milners founded the Breakthrough Prize, the largest-ever award for science and mathematics, in 2012. One year on, in 2013, the great Stephen Hawking won a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.
Stephen Hawking proved an important source of advice for Yuri Milner in the creation of the Breakthrough Initiatives. In 2015, Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking launched Breakthrough Listen. The programme began early in 2016 and will continue until at least 2026.