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Stephen Hawking and Yuri Milner
Stephen Hawking and Yuri Milner. (Photo courtesy of Hawking Center for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge.)

Russian high-tech billionaire Yuri Milner teamed up with the world’s most famous scientist, British physicist Stephen Hawking, to announce a new $100 million effort to detect signals from alien civilizations.

The Breakthrough Listen initiative was unveiled Monday during a webcast from the Royal Society in London.

“There is no bigger question,” Hawking said. “It is time to commit to finding the answer to search for life beyond Earth.”

Milner, who was an early investor in Facebook and Twitter, plans to spend the $100 million over the next 10 years to back a radio search using the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the Parkes Telescope in Australia – plus a search for laser signals by the Lick Observatory’s Automated Planet Finder Telescope in Northern California.

“This was once a dream,” Milner said. “Now it is a truly scientific quest.”

The search will be conducted by a team that includes scientists from a long-running program at Berkeley that focuses on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI. Milner said Lord Martin Rees, Britain’s astronomer royal, will head the effort’s scientific advisory board. Other advisers include longtime SETI astronomer Frank Drake and Ann Druyan, the widow of Carl Sagan and a co-creator of the “Cosmos” TV series.

“We will have the most powerful and enduring search that’s ever been launched,” Drake said.

Starting next year, the project will check about a billion stars in our own Milky Way galaxy, and listen for signals from 100 other galaxies as well. Milner said Breakthrough Listen will collect more data for the SETI quest in one day than has been collected over the course of one year by any previous effort.

“All the data will remain open,” Milner said. Internet users can help analyze the data using Berkeley’s SETI@home software.

Berkeley astronomer Geoffrey Marcy said the data can also be used for non-SETI research, and “may reveal new astronomical objects that nobody ever dreamed of.”

“There’s a chance of discovering the unexpected,” Marcy said.

Just in case signals from aliens are detected, a parallel effort known as Breakthrough Message has been set up to formulate a transmission “to describe ourselves and our planet in language that other minds can understand,” Milner said. A million dollars in prizes will be set aside for a competition to create the message, with details to be announced later, according to Milner’s Breakthrough Foundation.

Druyan said the effort would include a debate over “whether or not it’s wise to send a message.”

Yuri Milner and Breakthrough Initiatives panel
Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announces the Breakthrough Listen and Breakthrough Message projects in London on Monday. The panel at right includes physicist Stephen Hawking, astronomer Martin Rees, SETI pioneer Frank Drake, “Cosmos” producer Ann Druyan and astronomer Geoffrey Marcy. Photo courtesy Breakthrough Initiatives.

Even if the search turns up nothing, it’s an experiment worth doing, Hawking said. “It will not prove that we are alone, but it will narrow the possibilities,” he said.

In the past, Hawking has said trying to contact extraterrestrial civilizations could be a bad idea, considering that contact between cultures usually ends poorly for the less advanced culture. But on Monday, Hawking essentially said that being forewarned is being forearmed. “We don’t know much about aliens, but we know about humans,” he said.

Seth Shostak, senior astronomer and director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in California, said Milner’s involvement was “great news” for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

“It’s a big game-changer, for sure,” he told GeekWire.

The SETI Institute isn’t yet part of the Breakthrough Listen initiative. However, Pete Worden, a former NASA official who is now chairman of Milner’s Breakthrough Prize Foundation, said the institute and its Allen Telescope Array could play a role in the future.

“One of our key objectives here is to really mobilize the world’s instruments for SETI search,” he told GeekWire, “so the ones we announced are the ones that we’ve worked to date, and we’re certainly going to begin conversations with many others over the next few years.”

The effort throws Milner into what may be his brightest spotlight yet. Trained as a physicist, the 53-year-old entrepreneur made his fortune with a series of Internet businesses in Russia. He parlayed that into even more by placing bets on ventures that are now high-tech household names – including Zynga and Groupon as well as Facebook and Twitter.

In 2012, he established the Breakthrough Prize program to honor pioneers in fundamental physics, math and the life sciences. The $3 million prizes were designed to outdo the Nobels in financial terms as well as celebrity cachet. The annual Oscar-style ceremonies have been hosted at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley by Hollywood heavyweights such as Seth MacFarlane and Kevin Spacey. Among the honorees: Stephen Hawking.

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