Stephen Hawking announces new $100 million search for alien life

The hunt for intelligent life in the universe has just been given a brand new boost

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The 2.4-metre Automated Planet Finder (APF) dome at Lick Observatory will assist in the hunt for intelligent life. Image Credit: Laurie Hatch

The 2.4-metre Automated Planet Finder (APF) dome at Lick Observatory will assist in the hunt for intelligent life. Image Credit: Laurie Hatch

The hunt for intelligent life in the universe has been given a brand new boost as investor Yuri Milner and physicist Stephen Hawking announce a $100 Million Breakthrough Prize Initiative that will reinvigorate the search for extraterrestrials over the next ten years.

Hailed as the biggest search yet for signs of intelligent life beyond our planet, the Lick Observatory’s Automated Planet Finder (APF) Telescope above San Jose in California has been tasked with undertaking a new deep and broad search for the optical laser transmissions being emitted by any intelligent civilisations.

The APF telescope, armed with its Levy spectrometer, will search 1000 nearby stars as well as 100 nearby galaxies for visible-light laser emission from technological sources used by alien life. It’s speculated that if any advanced lifeforms exist nearby then they may be using lasers for communication between their home planet and satellites as well as between interplanetary spacecraft and colonies on other worlds.

“As part of the Breakthrough Prize Initiative, the APF telescope will undertake the most extensive search for optical laser transmissions in history,” says Claire Max, Interim Director of the University of California Observatories. “It is a tremendous honor to participate in a project of this size and scope.”

Stephen Hawking is backing the $100 million initiative. Image Credit: NASA

Stephen Hawking is backing the $100 million initiative. Image Credit: NASA

The Breakthrough Prize Foundation will also be employing two of the world’s largest radio telescopes for the search – the 100-metre Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia as well as the 64-metre Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia.

“We’ve learned a lot in the last fifty years about how to look for signals from space. With the Breakthrough Initiatives, the learning curve is likely to bend upward significantly,” says Frank Drake, a pioneer of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). “Right now there could be messages from the stars flying right through the room, through us all. That still sends a shiver down my spine. The search for intelligent life is a great adventure.”

Overall, the survey will target the 1,000,000 closest stars to Earth as well as scanning the centre of our galaxy and the galactic plane. Beyond that, the trio of telescopes will be ‘listening’ to 100 of the closest galaxies.

“We learned from the NASA Kepler mission that our Milky Way galaxy contains tens of billions of Earth-size planets at lukewarm temperatures, any of which might harbour life,” says Geoff Marcy, Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at UC Berkeley and one of the initiates leaders alongside the likes of Lord Martin Rees (University of Cambridge), Ann Druyan (Cosmos Studios), Dan Wertheimer (SETI) and Pete Worden (Breakthrough Prize Foundation).

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