You’ve probably heard of SETI, (the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence). It is, as its name implies, a search for evidence of non-Earth based civilizations advanced enough to send out radio waves, or some other type of communication. The idea is that, using radio telescopes, we here on Earth could pick up these communications, wether they’ve been sent to us intentionally, or if they’re just radio or television transmissions from the people on another planet that have bled off into space, very much like the transmissions that we have been unintentionally sending off into space for over a hundred years.
In the early sixties, searching the universe for these alien transmissions was thought by some scientists to be a good idea. That’s when SETI was started, using radio telescopes around the world. In recent decades the SETI budget has been cut, and cut, and cut again, but a recent influx of money from Russian billionaire philanthropist Yuri Milner is re-invigorating SETI, and none too soon.
The monetary influx came in July of 2015 when Milner announced that his Breakthrough Prize Foundation would donate $100 million to SETI over the course of 10 years. This was the largest budget increase SETI has ever received. Due to its decades of budget cuts, SETI had become the bastard stepchild of the astronomical sciences, relying entirely on the generosity of public and private donations. At its height SETI’s global annual funding was $1.5 million. But with Milner's millions, all of that is about to change.
Seth Shostak is the senior astronomer and director of the research division at the SETI Institute, nestled in California's Silicon Valley. The SETI Institute is one of the most prominent centers for SETI research in the world. "This is the biggest infusion of money for SETI since the NASA SETI program was terminated by Congress in 1993," says Shostak. "So, of course this is a major boost to the search."
Milner’s initiative, entitled The Breakthrough Listen project, will use some of the world’s largest radio telescopes in a decade-long mission to find evidence of intelligent life. The the 100-meter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the 64-meter Parkes radio telescope in Australia and have already been enlisted. They will search the nearest million stars. This is, by the way, three orders of magnitude more stars than SETI has ever sampled before. The two facilities will also listen to a hundred nearby galaxies and along the galactic plane of the Milky Way for radio signals from another civilization.
Before Milner’s monetary infusion, SETI was headed toward extinction. With almost no money, paying for telescope time and manpower both to run the equipment and to analyze the searches was growing increasingly limited. Green Bank and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, two of SETI’s main facilities, were on the National Science Foundation's chopping block to cut costs. Milner's money will likely help Green Bank win a reprieve, but even with Milner’s money, Arecibo’s future still remains in serious doubt.
University of California, Berkeley Astrophysicist Andrew Siemion, one of the directors of the Breakthrough Listen project says, ”Frankly we're getting incredible value in terms of telescope time; the Green Bank telescope is a $125 million telescope. … It’s a world-class radio telescope in every sense of the word, and we're getting it for pennies on the dollar.”