The Future of SETI and the $100 Million Search for Alien Life

Thursday, 10 September 2015 - 12:26PM
Astrobiology
Alien Life
Thursday, 10 September 2015 - 12:26PM
The Future of SETI and the $100 Million Search for Alien Life

In July, some of the greatest minds on the planet, including Stephen Hawking, Kip Thorne, Frank Drake, SETI director Seth Shostak, and many more, pledged $100 million (financed by Yuri Milner) to the greatest attempt to find extraterrestrial life in the history of humankind. SETI had been floundering as a result of a lack of funding, and was in serious danger of collapse, but this influx of money changed everything.

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"This is the biggest infusion of money for SETI since the NASA SETI program, which was terminated by Congress in 1993," Shostak told Phys.org. "So, of course this is a major boost to the search."
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The project, called Breakthrough Listen, will use some of the biggest telescopes in the world to search for extraterrestrial life over the next ten years. They have unfortunately been denied use of the world's largest telescope, the 305-meter Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, they have received permission to use the 64-meter Parkes radio telescope in Australia and the 100-meter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. These telescopes will allow them to listen for radio signals throughout the Milky Way and in the hundred nearest galaxies, and to search the million stars closest to Earth, three orders of magnitude more stars than ever before.

Opening quote
"Frankly we're getting incredible value in terms of telescope time; the Green Bank telescope is a $125 million telescope," said UC Berkeley astrophysicist Andrew Siemion, who is also one of the directors of the Breakthrough Listen Project. "It's a world-class radio telescope in every sense of the word and we're getting it for pennies on the dollar."
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Meanwhile, SETI is working on their own project with the Allen Telescope Array (ATA), which will also search for radio signals from advanced alien civilizations. The ATA almost didn't come to fruition as a result of a lack of funding, but now the project is safe and SETI will be able to use all 42 radio dishes in the observatory to scan the skies or to zero in on a specific target.

Opening quote
"Though if we knew precisely the best strategy to use in the search, we would of course put all our effort into that," said Shostak. "We don't, and we can't."
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Of course, ten years is little more than a blink in astronomical time, and a million stars is still a relatively tiny portion of the universe, so the odds of finding extraterrestrial life are still extremely low. But the project may be able to accomplish goals that will lead to the discovery of alien life in the future, particularly bringing the search back to the forefront of scientific research. In the Breakthrough Listen Project's open letter, the signers said, "It is hard enough to comb the Universe from the edge of the Milky Way; harder still from the edge of the public consciousness."

Opening quote
"SETI is a long-term project," said Siemion. "We're going to do the 10-year, $100 million dollar initiative. It's a dream come true and we're going to do a great project with it, but the most likely outcome is that we won't detect anything. But then maybe people will start to think that we're the only intelligent life in the Universe and I think that would be an incredibly profound realization. If the Breakthrough Listen project succeeded in communicating that fragility and rareness to the public, I think it would have been a success."
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