Stephen Hawking is not only a first-rate astrophysicist. As an icon of popular culture, with the bestselling A Brief History of Time to his credit, along with appearances on The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory, the large volume of media attention that he has drawn to a project—announced in conjunction with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner—should come as no surprise. The ten-year, $100 million effort to find alien life, titled Breakthrough Listen, will be, to date the biggest scientific search for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth.
Although Hawking isn’t listed among the leadership of the Breakthrough Listen project, it’s likely that his role will be hands-off and will largely entail liaising with the public. His colleagues, Frank Drake (an early pioneer in SETI), and Martin Rees (the current Astronomer Royal in the United Kingdom), along with other astronomy professors and scientists, will be directing the endeavor’s operations.
Previous attempts at detecting messages from extraterrestrials, loosely grouped under the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project, have been funded at a much lower rate through government programs and independent visionaries. Many attempts to actually send a message to ETs have been one-off events, with almost zero chance of success, including the golden phonograph records launched aboard NASA’s Voyager spacecraft, and the three-minute-long Arecibo Message. Not to mention the highly-publicized Wow! signal, a strong, narrowband radio signal detected in August 1977, which just recently garnered a response from humanity in the form of Twitter messages beamed out in the direction of the message origin.
Efforts to find extraterrestrial life began as early as 1896, when the use of radio waves to detect foreign signals was proposed. From scanning the cosmos for natural radio signals, to searches with omnidirectional antennas, the utilization of various radio telescopes and satellites to monitor for signals from outer space has continued to this day. While this technology is most commonly thought of in reference to weather satellites, satellite TV and mobile wireless communication, there are a number of powerful telescopes around the world that are capable of listening for such signals.
With the funds bestowed by Milner, Breakthrough Listen will be able to buy time on two such telescopes to conduct the search, with an additional third telescope used to try to identify signals sent via optical laser transmission. Unlike the kind of telescope that you take outside with you to stargaze, which is of the optical variety, this project will be utilizing radio telescopes consisting of a large dish—much like a satellite TV dish—that can detect radio waves coming from the far reaches of the cosmos.
Previous SETI projects have used similar methods, but the extent to which they could successfully function was limited by their funding. Breakthrough Listen will have the resources to observe ten times more of the sky and to scan at least five times more of the radio spectrum than ever before. After making their observations, astronomers will then be able to sift through the data to try to separate natural phenomena from those that may have been created by alien life.
Even with this new funding commitment, searching for the transmissions of extraterrestrial beings is like finding a needle in a haystack. We have no idea what their languages might be like, on what frequencies they would broadcast or the purposes for which they might use radio or laser communications. Whistle-blower Edward Snowden recently made the point that encryption processes have a goal of making messages seem indistinguishable from random noise, and so, if ‘aliens’ are using sufficiently advanced cryptography, we may have no way of differentiating their communications from radio static.
In 1950, physicist Enrico Fermi did some calculations and realized that, given the age of the universe and the number of stars that it contains, we should see signs of alien life all around us. The fact that we don’t observe any reliable indications of life outside the earth has been called “The Fermi Paradox.” Over the years, a number of hypotheses have been put forward to explain this paradox, with Snowden’s being the latest, but the simplest explanation might just be the correct one: perhaps there exists no intelligent life in star systems besides our own.
Even if we are able to find and decode a message from an alien civilization, we might not be able to communicate effectively. The vastness of interstellar space means that a message sent to even the closest stars would take years to be received. Milner is funding a related scheme, called Breakthrough Message, which will hold a contest with $1 million in prizes for composing the best message to send into space, but there are no plans to actually send them.
If, despite the odds, we actually do encounter and converse with an extraterrestrial species, it would probably be the biggest news in the history of humankind. People would have to revisit their religious beliefs, ideas about the significance of homo sapiens in the universe and views on morality and ethics. When we consider what has happened here on earth whenever two hitherto distant civilizations have encountered each other, perhaps extraterrestrial contact may be more trouble than it’s worth.
Stars hatching in Orion – Wikimedia Public Domain
Golden Record – NASA Public Domain
The Arecibo Radio Telescope – Wikimedia Public Domain
Guest Author Bio
Kate Voss is a writer and blogger based in the Windy City. Fuelled by coffee and chocolate, she’s an MSU alum with a passion for recycling and refurbishing old furniture. Her favorite Girl Scout Cookie is the trefoil.