Search for E.T. gets financial boost

Private funds will make listening data publicly available

telescope looking for life

LOOKING FOR LIFE  The Parkes (right) and Green Bank (middle) radio telescopes, as well as the Automated Planet Finder at Lick Observatory (left), will aid in the hunt for alien transmissions.

O. Alexandrov, CC BY-SA 3.0 (left); NRAO/AUI/NSF (middle); David McClenaghan, CSIRO (right)

First contact with an alien civilization might now be in the hands of a Russian billionaire.

Yuri Milner, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist, is throwing $100 million at the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Powerful radio and optical telescopes will be drafted to listen and look for interstellar broadcasts, Milner announced July 20 at a news conference in London. The data will be made publicly available so that anyone can lend a hand in the hunt for E.T.

The plan is to listen and look for radio and laser transmissions from 1 million of the sun’s closest neighbors in addition to 100 of the nearest galaxies. The initiative, named Breakthrough Listen, guarantees up to 25 percent of the time available on two radio telescopes: Green Bank in West Virginia and Parkes in Australia. These instruments should be able to pick up transmissions as powerful as aircraft radar coming from any one of the 1,000 nearest stars.

And just in case aliens consider radio technology to be passé, the Automated Planet Finder at Lick Observatory near San Jose, Calif., will be on the lookout for visible flashes from laser-based communications.

The money, to be spent over the next 10 years, will also help develop the software needed to efficiently eavesdrop on our fellow galactic citizens. 

Christopher Crockett is an Associate News Editor. He was formerly the astronomy writer from 2014 to 2017, and he has a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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