Breakthrough Listen, the most comprehensive search for extraterrestrial life to take place so far, has announced its latest development: a technique that can comb through existing radio telescope data to strengthen and clarify our view of this data. Since launching the initiative in 2016 with Stephen Hawking, the science philanthropist and Breakthrough Prize founder Yuri Milner has overseen pivotal developments in SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence).
Yuri Milner has backed the 10-year program, one of his Breakthrough Initiatives, with $100 million in funding. This is just one of the initiatives that he has committed to funding as part of his Giving Pledge. His foundation also runs the global Breakthrough Prize, the biggest award in science.
Breakthrough Listen’s Work
Breakthrough Listen surveys stars across our galactic plane, searching for messages from the galaxies nearest ours. Not only do the initiative’s surveys cover 10 times more of the sky than previous programs, but they also cover 5 times more of the radio spectrum, 100 times faster, and they’re sensitive enough to hear a common aircraft radar transmitting to us from any of the 1,000 nearest stars.
Listen also involves the deepest, broadest search ever conducted for optical laser transmissions. These spectroscopic searches are 1,000 times more effective at identifying laser signals than ordinary visible light surveys and can detect a 100-watt laser, which is the energy of a standard household bulb, from 25 trillion miles away.
Furthermore, Listen has involved the analysis of exotic objects like the interstellar visitor ‘Oumuamua and discovered new objects, such as powerful fast radio bursts. The initiative has made two petabytes of data available, which is the equivalent of a billion iPhone photos, and crafted pioneering machine learning techniques to search this data.
Listen’s science team is based at Berkeley SETI Research Center, which is part of the Astronomy Department at the University of California, Berkeley.
Searching Old Data Gathered by Radio Telescopes
In Listen’s latest developments, the science team has announced that it will reanalyze the project’s existing data in collaboration with the University of Manchester. Together, they will focus on observations from the Green Bank Telescope (GBT), in West Virginia, which is the world’s largest steerable radio telescope.
With the advent of a fine-tuned technique, the research team can now filter celestial foreground and background stars and objects from the observations of target stars that they make with a radio telescope. By reassessing 469 target fields located away from the plane of the Milky Way, avoiding gas and dust that would otherwise obscure the view, Breakthrough Listen has identified more than 140,000 extragalactic systems and astrophysical exotica.
In the future, Listen will focus on observing large concentrations of stars at cosmological distances to extend the search for such technosignatures.
One of Five Breakthrough Initiatives
Listen is just one of Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Initiatives. Other space science programs in this collection include Watch, Starshot, Message, and Discuss. He is also the founder of the global Breakthrough Prize.
By joining the Giving Pledge, Yuri Milner agreed to commit a substantial share of his wealth to essential scientific research in the form of enterprises like the Breakthrough Prize and the Breakthrough Initiatives, which he founded with other science thought leaders. For example, Yuri Milner founded Listen with Stephen Hawking, who had been a childhood hero of Yuri Milner’s. After he attended one of Stephen Hawking’s lectures in 1987, Stephen Hawking agreed to collaborate with Yuri Milner on SETI research and found Listen together.