For generations, humans have wondered about the existence of life amongst the stars. Today, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is thriving, in part thanks to science philanthropist Yuri Milner. The Israeli billionaire is a Giving Pledge signatory, a founder of the Breakthrough Prize, and the author of Eureka Manifesto: The Mission for Our Civilisation.
In 2015, Milner and Stephen Hawking announced the launch of Breakthrough Listen, the first of the Breakthrough Initiatives. With the financial backing of Milner and his wife Julia, the Breakthrough Initiatives have partnered with several observatories and telescopes around the globe. These partnerships help fund SETI and the discovery of habitable worlds.
The story behind the breakthrough initiatives
The Breakthrough Initiatives are five space science programmes that investigate the fundamental questions of life in the cosmos. These questions include: Are we alone in the Universe? Are there habitable worlds in our galaxy besides Earth? Could humanity one day travel to the stars?
The Breakthrough Initiatives are
- Breakthrough Listen — the largest-ever scientific research programme that searches for radio signal evidence of alien civilisations.
- Breakthrough Watch — a programme that identifies Earth-sized, rocky planets in search of oxygen and other signs of life.
- Breakthrough Starshot — a research and engineering programme that develops proof of concept for ultra-fast, light-driven space probes.
- Breakthrough Message — an international competition to design interstellar messages that an advanced alien civilisation could understand.
- Breakthrough Discuss — an annual academic conference that encourages discussion about life in the Universe and space exploration.
The programmes receive funding through the Breakthrough Foundation, an organisation that the Milners launched after making their Giving Pledge in 2012. By becoming signatories of the Giving Pledge, the Milners promised to support scientific projects throughout their lifetimes.
Books like Iosif Shklovsky and Carl Sagan’s Intelligent Life in the Universe sparked Milner’s passion for science in his childhood. Years on, the philanthropist also credits Stephen Hawking, Frank Drake, and Bernie Oliver for inspiring the Breakthrough Initiatives’ focus on SETI.
SETI scientists have scanned the skies with radio telescopes for decades in search of alien signals. Today, Breakthrough Listen uses instruments that are 50 times more sensitive than previous SETI-dedicated telescopes.
The $100 million programme combines these instruments with cutting-edge software and data analysis techniques. Listen surveys targets (such as the one million stars and 100 galaxies closest to Earth) with a range of radio and optical frequency bands.
Some of Listen’s primary facilities include:
- The Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in the U.S.
- The Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia.
- Lick Observatory’s Automated Planet Finder in the U.S.
- The MeerKAT array in South Africa.
Listen has additional partnerships with many global facilities, including the FAST telescope in China and the Jodrell Bank Observatory in the UK. In 2019, Listen announced a new collaboration with NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) team to scan over a thousand new planets for technosignatures.
The Green Bank Telescope and the Parkes Telescope
Listen has operated a coordinated search for radio signals with the GBT and Parkes Telescope since 2016. The GBT is the world’s largest steerable radio telescope, while the Parkes Telescope is the second-largest steerable radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere.
Together, the telescopes cover 10 times more of the sky than previous SETI searches, focusing on the quieter part of the radio spectrum. Some of the targets of the GBT’s search include nearby stars and galaxies. The Parkes Telescope covers similar targets, plus the entire galactic plane of the Milky Way.
So far, Listen has generated several findings through its work with the GBT and the Parkes Telescope, including:
- Analysis results of data from the first year of GBT observations. These initial findings included the “11 events ranked highest for significance.”
- A series of radio bursts originating from a dwarf galaxy approximately three billion light years from Earth.
- Observations of ‘Oumuamua, an interstellar asteroid (Listen didn’t detect any radio emissions).
- An intriguing signal originating from the direction of Proxima Centauri (the closest star to our Sun). A Listen researcher compared this signal to the Wow! Signal.
In 2018, Listen announced the launch of a new programme with the MeerKAT telescope, in partnership with the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO).
The survey, which officially began in December 2022, is searching over a million stars for signs of alien technology. This increases the number of targets in any previous SETI search by a factor of 1,000. One of the programme’s first targets is Proxima Centauri.
The 64-dish MeerKAT array enables Listen to operate 24/7, in parallel with other astronomical surveys. The Listen team developed advanced targeting and scheduling software for the new collaboration. They also created an automated data processing system that can scan the MeerKAT data in almost real time to detect unusual signals from space.
In 2016, the Pale Red Dot campaign at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) discovered Proxima b, an Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri.
Other discoveries (such as those of the Kepler Mission) have also shown the high likelihood of stars in our Milky Way and other galaxies having “exo-Earths.” These rocky, Earth-sized planets bask in the habitable zones of their stars, where water exists in liquid form.
Along with an oxygen atmosphere and other “biosignatures,” liquid water is a good sign that primitive life could exist on a distant planet. Breakthrough Watch searches exo-Earths around Alpha Centauri (and stars up to 20 light years away from Earth) for these biosignatures.
The programme uses powerful telescopes to locate these planets and then analyse their composition. A world that appears blue through a telescope (like Earth) could be a prime candidate for an oxygen-rich atmosphere and a home for primitive alien life.
However, finding the blue dot of a planet against the bright glow of a nearby star (and examining it for signs of life) represents a huge technical challenge for Earth-based telescopes. To advance the search for exo-Earths, Watch has instigated various partnerships to support the development of new precision-measurement instruments.
In 2016, Breakthrough Watch launched a collaboration with ESO to adapt the Very Large Telescope (VLT) instrumentation in Chile to search for planets in Alpha Centauri.
The Breakthrough Initiatives funded a large portion of the design and installation of a special instrument (a thermal infrared coronagraph) on one of the VLT’s four eight-metre-aperture telescopes. This involved upgrading an existing instrument and optimising its sensitivity to infrared wavelengths associated with habitable exo-Earths.
Building on these advances, Watch and ESO launched an ambitious $3 million observation programme in 2019. Called New Earths in the AlphaCen Region (NEAR), the 100-hour observation looked for exo-Earths within the habitable zones of two Alpha Centauri stars, A and B.
The programme demonstrated the new VLT instrument’s capability to detect planets roughly three times the size of Earth in the stars’ habitable zones. Rocky planets typically have radii less than 1.7 times that of Earth. However, NEAR demonstrates that, with further technological advances, we could soon discover such worlds.
In 2021, the Breakthrough Initiatives announced a new telescope project to identify planets around Alpha Centauri that could sustain life. For TOLIMAN, Watch has partnered with scientists from the University of Sydney, Saber Astronautics in Australia, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
TOLIMAN’s mission is to develop and launch a custom-designed space telescope that can take precision measurements of the position of a star. These measurements can tell us whether a star has orbiting planets, which could be prime targets for Watch.
The Breakthrough Initiatives recently stated that Watch would fund phase two of the TOLIMAN project. The second phase will include designing, building, and integrating the telescope with the spacecraft that will carry the new instrument into orbit.
About Yuri Milner
Yuri Milner is an Israeli billionaire whose investments focus on internet technology and science philanthropy.
In 2012, the Milners signed Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates’ Giving Pledge to support scientific causes and the spread of scientific ideas. To satisfy the commitments of their Giving Pledge, the Milners co-founded the Breakthrough Prize with Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, Priscilla Chan, and Mark Zuckerberg.
The Breakthrough Prize recognises pioneering work from the world’s top scientists. Every year, laureates receive their Breakthrough Prizes (each worth $3 million) at an internationally televised gala award ceremony in Silicon Valley.
Milner is the author of Eureka Manifesto, a short book published in 2021. Eureka Manifesto contains some of Milner’s ideas about humanity’s shared mission to explore and understand the Universe. The book also discusses the possible risks and rewards of embracing — or failing to embrace — this mission. Eureka Manifesto is available to read online.
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