Russian billionaire joins search for alien intelligence (+video)

Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced on Monday that he plans to invest $100 million to listen for signals from intelligent life on other planets.

  • close
    Is the cosmos filled with chatty alien civilizations, or is the Earth a lonely spark of life in a sterile universe? The Russian billionaire Yuri Milner wants to know, and has committed to spending at least $100 million to support the search for extraterrestrial intelligence or SETI.Is the cosmos filled with chatty alien civilizations, or is the Earth a lonely spark of life in a sterile universe? The Russian billionaire Yuri Milner wants to know, and has committed to spending at least $100 million to support the search for extraterrestrial intelligence or SETI.
    View Caption
  • About video ads
    View Caption

Wondering if we are alone in the universe has engaged minds through the ages. Add to the list Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, who announced on Monday that he plans to spend $100 million to explore the idea.

Using some of the world's largest radio telescopes, a team of scientists handpicked by Milner will oversee an initiative he calls Breakthrough Listen, a 10-year search for radio signals that could indicate the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

"It's the most interesting technological question of our day," Milner said in an interview, noting that he became fascinated by the notion of extra-terrestrial life after reading astrophysicist Carl Sagan's "Intelligent Life in the Universe" as a 10-year-old in Moscow.

His funds to bankroll the project came from savvy early investments in startups such as Facebook Inc.

Milner's motivation is his belief that other civilizations could teach us how to handle challenges such as allocating natural resources.

"If we're alone, we need to cherish what we have," he said. "The message is, the universe has no backup."

Scientists said the project dwarfs anything else in the field, known as the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence. Globally, less than $2 million annually is spent on SETI, said Dan Werthimer, an adviser to Milner's project and the astrophysicist who directs the SETI@home project affiliated with the University of California in Berkeley.

Today, due to technology improvements, including in computing power and telescope sensitivity, $100 million will go much farther than in the early 1990s, the last time SETI had significant funding, scientists said.

The advances allow scientists to monitor several billion radio frequencies at a time, instead of several million, and to search 10 times more sky than in the early 1990s.

But any signals the scientists detect will likely have been created years ago, perhaps even centuries or millennia earlier. Radio signals take four years simply to travel between Earth and the nearest star outside our solar system.

In 10 years, with his $100 million, Milner figures scientists can listen for radio transmissions in the Milky Way galaxy, plus the 100 nearest galaxies.

One of the biggest costs lies in booking time at radio telescopes, including at Australia's Parkes Observatory in New South Wales and the Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. Milner plans to book about two months a year at each site, a boon to scientists who normally might get two days a year on the telescopes.

The team, led by scientists such as Peter Worden, who until earlier this year directed the NASA Ames Research Center, will organize the radio signals they find, make the data public, and examine the data for patterns.

The goal lies less in understanding the signals than in establishing whether they were created by intelligent life rather than natural phenomena.

Scientists say the fact that humans have developed radio signaling makes it a good bet that others may use it as well.

"It doesn't tell you anything about the civilization, but it tells you a civilization is there," said Frank Drake, who with Carl Sagan sent the first physical message into space in 1972, the Pioneer plaques on board the Pioneer 10 U.S. spacecraft. An adviser to Breakthrough Listen, Drake is also chairman emeritus of the SETI Institute.

In addition to checking for radio signals, Breakthrough Listen will hunt for light-based signals using a telescope at the Lick Observatory in California.

Milner, creator of the Breakthrough Prize for scientific achievement, announced the initiative in London accompanied by scientists such as Stephen Hawking, the physicist and author. Hawking holds an advisory role on the project.

A physicist by training, Milner joins many successful entrepreneurs and investors with an interest in space, notably SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk, who has said he would like to colonize Mars one day.

(Editing by Stephen R. Trousdale and Richard Chang)

Make a Difference
Inspired? Here are some ways to make a difference on this issue.
FREE Newsletters
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.




Save for later


Saved ( of items)

This item has been saved to read later from any device.
Access saved items through your user name at the top of the page.

View Saved Items


Failed to save

You reached the limit of 20 saved items.
Please visit following link to manage you saved items.

View Saved Items


Failed to save

You have already saved this item.

View Saved Items