Image: NRAO/Wikimedia Commons

What Alien Hunters Plan to Buy With $100 Million

The importance of Yuri Milner's donation "can't be overstated," SETI Research director says.

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Jul 20 2015, 9:40pm

Image: NRAO/Wikimedia Commons

Russian billionaire Yuri Milner just gave the hunt for alien life a giant cash infusion a $100 million investment. Over the next 10 years, the new Breakthrough Listen initiative will vastly expand the scope and reach of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, called SETI for short.

It's "hard to overstate" the importance of the cash infusion, says Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and a project manager for its adjunct SETI@home project.

The SETI community was dealt a massive setback in 1993 when Senator Richard Bryan, a notorious foe of the search, decimated federal funding for SETI and turned it into a strictly private venture.

"Everyone lost their jobs. They weren't able to keep going in the field," Siemion told Motherboard. "It also scared everyone. It scared grad students, it scared post-docs, it scared researchers. No one wants to be involved in research where your funding can be pulled at any moment."

Since then, there have been a few organizations left to fill in the void, including the SETI Institute, the Berkeley SETI Research Center, and SETI@home, which uses a cloud computing model that distributes data across a network of volunteers. But even with the popularity of SETI@home, which has 3 million users, Siemion says the project has struggled to keep its doors open.

"There's a group of people, some quite prominent, who believe that it would be quite dangerous for humanity to communicate with a civilization we don't know anything about."

In addition, much of SETI@home's data doesn't come from leasing out telescope time, but instead piggybacking on telescope time rented from others. This means that an astronomer searching for distant radio galaxies at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico would gather their data from a region of the sky, while the SETI team combs through that data for other signals that might've been picked up.

But Milner's infusion of cash means the sorts of resources SETI researchers have only dreamed of, and the kind of funding to keep them alive. It means both active telescope time devoted to SETI research alone at some of the biggest radio telescopes in the world, and the instrumentation to listen across the entire electromagnetic spectrum.

"In the near term, it's going to dramatically expand our capabilities," Siemions says. "We're going to have new instrumentation at the largest telescopes in the world and it's going to be 10 times more powerful than anything we've ever had."

The first order of business will be listening in to the 1,000 stars closest to Earth. Siemion says his team will be listening for "weak signals" coming from these star systems. As he explains, it's not quite what you see in TV or movies where a radio signal is picked up from your local FM station by a distant civilization. Instead, it's things closer to military radar, powerful, deliberate signals that send out a stronger pulse.

What they would indicate is not the galaxy-spanning megacivilizations, but rather, the civilizations that are just a few decades ahead of us on the technological time table. It may be the way to resolve the Fermi Paradox (if there are alien civilizations out there, why haven't we heard from them?) by listening for them with much more sensitive ears.

"This potentially multiplies our radio observing bandwidth by 1000x and, of course, gives us the ability to see the whole sky rather than the 1/3 of the sky that Arecibo can see. We're also going to have targeted observations of specific stars, something we've had only rarely," Eric Korpela, director of SETI@home, told Motherboard. He also says that this means they're "going to need a lot more people running SETI@home."

So what happens if they find something? Well, first, Siemion says they'll have to search through the data and rule out terrestrial sources, then listen for any repetition. With such a big hunt on, it could be a while longer before what's called Active SETI could even feasibly come into play—up to a century. That's when we might try to start sending out messages of our own, if that even is the right thing to do.

"If we had a confirmed signal from a distant technology, the question of how we would respond would become very prescient," he says. "There's a group of people, some quite prominent, who believe that it would be quite dangerous for humanity to communicate with a civilization we don't know anything about."

Of course, one of those prominent voices is Stephen Hawking, who flanked Milner at today's announcement, showing his support for the initiative. And maybe it's because it's not about communicating, yet. It's about listening and performing a giant sky survey and looking for technologically advanced civilizations within our relative reach.

The effort will take a long time. The other questions happen after that. But finally, after more than 20 years of struggling, SETI research has a safety net, and researchers can concentrate on finding out whether or not we're alone in the universe. Or at least in our galactic backyard.