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A file photo of physicist Stephen Hawking. Photo: Reuters
A file photo of physicist Stephen Hawking. Photo: Reuters

Stephen Hawking joins Russian billionaire in ET search

The Breakthrough Prize Foundation commits $100 million over 10 years for project to search for extraterrestrial intelligence

New Delhi: The Universe has over 100 billion galaxies and each contains hundreds of millions of stars. To the mathematical mind of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, the only doubt is about how would the aliens look like. He has been always positive about the existence of extraterrestrial life.

Now he has company in this search. Russian billionaire Yuri Milner on Monday announced a $100-million project for this purpose. The Breakthrough Prize Foundation, founded by Milner, committed $100 million over 10 years for a project called Breakthrough Listen for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).

The project will be carried out in collaboration with the world’s largest telescopes, including the 100-meter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in the US and the 64-meter Parkes Telescope in Australia to ensure maximum dedicated time with some of the biggest telescopes.

The funding will also employ the Automated Planet Finder at the Lick Observatory near San Jose, US, to search for optical laser signals from other planets.

“Mankind has a deep need to explore and to know. We also happen to be sociable creatures. It is important to know if we are alone," said Prof. Hawking at the press conference at the Royal Society in London, which was livestreamed.

“(Alien life) might be there, or might not. But recent explorations like Keplar mission have changed the game. It is quite likely that they are there," he said.

“It is a $100-million commitment for a decade of search for intelligent life. The idea is to bring Silicon Valley approach to the search," said Milner.

University of California, Berkeley, will build high-speed digital electronics and high-bandwidth signal processing instruments to gather and analyze the radio and optical data collected by the telescopes, and will train the next generation of SETI scientists, said Dan Werthimer, one of the leaders of the effort, in a release issued by UC Berkeley.

“This is about five times the amount of money now spent worldwide on SETI, part of which will be used to purchase dedicated time on telescopes that previously we were lucky to get only a day or two per year," said Werthimer, who heads the world’s longest-running SETI project, called SERENDIP.

Breakthrough Listen will recruit immense computing power of SETI@home’s 9 million volunteers to search radio data for signals from outside the solar system and include a visible-light search using the Automated Planet Finder at Lick Observatory to detect laser beams pointing in earth’s direction.

“It is a huge gamble, but if successful the payoff will be huge," said British astrophysicist Martin Reese giving three reasons why this project is timely—Technology allows much more sensitive search than before with telescopes being more powerful, chance of finding life has risen billion folds since the Nasa’s Kepler mission found more than a thousand new planets, and the global reach of citizen science and social media.

“This was once a dream, now it truly a scientific quest. In the 21st century, we will try to answer questions like do other civilizations exist?" said Geoff Marcy, UC Berkeley astronomy professor.

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