Detecting technosignatures, observing interstellar objects, and searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. This is the exciting work of Breakthrough Listen, a 10-year mission to search for alien communications and the result of a collaboration between science and tech philanthropist Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking. Part of The Breakthrough Initiatives, a suite of space science programmes that hope to answer fundamental questions about life in the universe, Listen is the largest project of its kind ever undertaken.
The Breakthrough Initiatives and Listen
Listen is a $100 million programme of astronomical observations and analysis that searches for evidence of technological civilisations in the universe. Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking launched the project in 2015 at the Royal Society in London, the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence and one of the most important institutions in the history of science. The project partners with some of the world’s most advanced telescopes across several continents to conduct cosmic surveys on an unprecedented scale, such as searching one million nearby stars, the entire Milky Way, and our 100 nearest galaxies.
Funding the Search for Alien Communications
When joining the Giving Pledge, a movement of philanthropists who have committed to donating the majority of their wealth to charitable causes, Yuri Milner considered that certain areas of science could also benefit from private funding.
His lifelong fascination with the universe and the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence inspired a partnership with one of his heroes, Stephen Hawking. This collaboration received financial backing from the foundation Yuri Milner launched with his wife Julia and would support the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Since the announcement of Listen approximately seven years ago, the project has reinvigorated humanity’s search for alien life.
Studying the Data
Thanks to machine learning and other innovations, SETI can search further and detect signals faster than ever before. The instruments used are among the world’s most powerful, 50 times more sensitive than existing telescopes dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. In fact, they are sensitive enough to hear a common aircraft radar transmitting to us from any of our 1,000 nearest stars.
Scouring huge data records requires looking for energy compressed into narrow frequency signals, something rarely found in nature but often made by humans. SETI data is thoroughly analysed to ensure a signal from Earth isn’t being mistaken for something extraterrestrial. Listen has so far discovered over 15 Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs), believed to be non-alien, as well as a particularly surprising signal in 2019 that seemed to originate from our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, later shown to be the result of terrestrial interference. Listen’s other observations include the mysterious Boyajian’s Star and the interstellar object ‘Oumuamua.
Reaching Out Across the Universe
Yuri Milner is no stranger to inspirational enterprises. Alongside The Breakthrough Initiatives, he also launched and founded The Breakthrough Prize and Breakthrough Junior Challenge with his wife. The larger purpose behind these projects is to inspire and support human innovation.
In his short book, Eureka Manifesto, Yuri Milner argues that humanity is in dire need of a shared mission to motivate and uplift our collective progress as a planet. This mission, he suggests, is to explore and understand the universe, and, along the way, potentially discover the existence of intelligent life beyond Earth.
So far, Listen hasn’t confirmed any extraterrestrial communications, but there’s a vast universe out there still waiting. Whether or not alien life exists, the answer will profoundly affect the significance of our place in the cosmos.