As the world’s most thorough astronomical programme to search for alien life, Breakthrough Listen is examining the Universe in greater depth than any other programme has before. The science philanthropist Yuri Milner invested $100 million into the 10-year initiative, which he launched in 2015 with Stephen Hawking.
Aside from Breakthrough Listen, Yuri Milner funds a host of other Breakthrough Initiatives and the Breakthrough Prize, which is the biggest awards programme on the global science scene. Yuri Milner pledged funding to each of these, following through on his Giving Pledge, which he joined with his wife Julia to commit a large portion of their lifetime wealth to the future of science.
The Giving Pledge, Breakthrough Prize, and Breakthrough Initiatives
Keeping his promise stated in his Giving Pledge, Yuri Milner established the Breakthrough Initiatives and the Breakthrough Prize. While the Breakthrough Prize rewards the world’s greatest minds in science, the Breakthrough Initiatives include Watch, Starshot, Message, and Discuss, on top of Listen.
These Initiatives are searching for habitable planets, planning a nanocraft space mission to Alpha Centauri, involving the public in creating messages to potentially send to an extraterrestrial civilisation, and creating a forum for academics to discuss new ideas about space exploration and alien life.
Stephen Hawking and the Origins of Breakthrough Listen
Having long been inspired by Stephen Hawking, Yuri Milner approached the theoretical physicist to ask his opinion on which scientific field to offer financial contributions to. Stephen Hawking suggested SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), and the two went on to found Breakthrough Listen with financial backing from Yuri Milner.
Breakthrough Listen’s Projects
Based at Berkeley SETI Research Centre in the University of California’s Astronomy Department, Listen oversees a variety of projects that include surveys of the 1,000,000 stars closest to Earth. The science team uses the world’s most powerful telescopes, which are 50 times more sensitive than the telescopes that other research programmes have employed.
Listen’s research team scans the centre of our galaxy, not to mention the entire galactic plane, listening for messages from intelligent life forms that may exist in the 100 galaxies nearest ours. The radio surveys cover 10 times more of the sky than other programmes and cover 5 times more of the radio spectrum, 100 times faster.
Breakthrough Listen’s Latest Developments
In some of Listen’s latest news, in partnership with the University of Manchester, the research team will implement a new technique to re-examine existing data gathered by radio telescopes. This technique filters celestial foreground and background stars and objects from radio telescope observations of target stars. The reanalysis could open doors to locating powerful transmitters in the Universe.
With the new technique and existing Green Bank Telescope (GBT) observations, Listen and the University of Manchester have identified more than 140,000 extragalactic systems that include a plethora of astrophysical exotica, from active galactic nuclei and interacting galaxies to gravitational lens systems and radio galaxies. Many of these sources are located at cosmological distances, but the inventory also includes nearby galaxies, galaxy groups, and galaxy clusters.
These systems may be millions of light-years away at the moment, but if the strength of “technosignatures” (signs of possible extraterrestrial civilisations) follows an approximate power-law distribution, much like transmitters on Earth, scientists may be able to identify rare, bright, detectable signals.