Search for alien life gets $100M and Stephen Hawking’s blessing

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NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is the first probe sent to Pluto, and it's scheduled to arrive in July 2015. This is an artist's concept of the spacecraft flying past Pluto.

SAN FRANCISCO — The search for intelligent life in the universe is getting an injection of resources, brains and money from Silicon Valley.

Tech investor Yuri Milner, alongside physicist Stephen Hawking and famed astrophysicist and cosmologist Lord Martin Rees, announced the Breakthrough Initatives on Monday.

Over the next 10 years, Milner will will invest $100 million in the Breakthrough Initiative. It will give scientists access to powerful technology, including some of the best telescopes in the world.

“The idea is to bring the Silicon Valley approach to the search,” said Milner at an event announcing the program at the Royal Society in London. “That means an approach to data that is transparent, that is innovative, and that uses the problem-solving power of social networks.”

Faster and more comprehensive than previous searches, Breakthrough Listen will be able to gather more data in a single day than any previous search gathered in an entire year, according to Milner. Its scope will include a million nearby stars, the galactic center, 100 nearby galaxies and the entire plane of the Milky Way.

All the data collected will be open to the public, and the hardware and open-source software will be compatible with telescopes around the world so other countries and researchers can join the search.

By Silicon Valley standards, $100 million sounds like a small amount. But it’s a huge help to existing SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) programs that have typically relied on minimal budgets.

Milner says the search for life outside Earth is especially timely now. We have powerful technology that can conduct more sensitive searches than ever before. NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has identified billions of potentially habitable planets, in our galaxy alone.

Current social networks also present a unique opportunity for the project to have a wider reach. Breakthrough Listen will team up with SETI-at-Home, an existing platform of 9 million computers that lets citizen scientists participate in the quest by donating spare computing power.

Rees says determining whether there is intelligent life can help us better form our view of the universe.

“We may not answer it, but this gives a bigger chance that it will be answered in our lifetime,” said Rees. “[It] is an inspiration, not just to astronomers and the general public, but to biologists, because the biggest uncertainties — the origin of life — are the biological ones.”

In addition to Breakthrough Listen, Breakthrough Initiatives will fund a $1 million competition for the best digital messages to send into space.

“There is no bigger question. It’s time to commit to finding the answer to the search for life beyond Earth. The Breakthrough Initiative [is] making that commitment,” said Hawking, a supporter of the project. “We are alive. We are intelligent. We must know.”