Billlionaire tech investor Yuri Milner speaks in London unveiling his proposal.

Billlionaire tech investor Yuri Milner speaks in London at the Royal Society, unveiling his proposal.

SETI, the famed program for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, was effectively killed in 1994 when Senator Richard Bryan (D) of Nevada added an amendment to the 1994 federal budget that cancelled of the High Resolution Microwave Survey and terminated NASA’s SETI efforts. NASA never even got to talk to Bryan about it. He kept refusing meeting requests from NASA staff.

Fast forward to today, and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner has just given the hunt for alien life a giant cash infusion on the order of $100 million. Milner made his billions investing in such enabling technologies as Facebook, Alibaba and many other tech startups, but his true passion is science – as demonstrated by his formation of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, the agency through which SETI will be funded.

Over the next ten years, the new initiative will be hiring prime observing time on the world’s premiere telescopes, instead of simply scavenging through the results of other projects as SETI@Home has been doing. The telescopes to be used are 50 times more sensitive than the best previously used for SETI. They’ll also be scanning 10 times more of the sky, over 5 times more of the radio spectrum – and they’ll be doing it more than 100 times faster.

The initiative was announced by Milner yesterday (July 20) in London at The Royal Society, where he was joined by physicist Stephen Hawking, Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, SETI research pioneer Frank Drake, UC Berkeley astronomy professor Geoff Marcy and postdoctoral fellow Andrew Siemion, and foundation chairman Peter Worden.

It’s “hard to overstate” the importance of the cash infusion, says Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and a project manager for its adjunct SETI@home project. “In the near term, it’s going to dramatically expand our capabilities,” Siemions says. “We’re going to have new instrumentation at the largest telescopes in the world and it’s going to be 10 times more powerful than anything we’ve ever had.”

The Breakthrough Prize Foundation has already contracted with two of the world’s largest radio telescopes – the 100-meter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the 64-meter Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia – to devote between 20 and 25 percent of their telescope time to searching for signals from other civilizations. The funding will also allow the Automated Planet Finder at the Lick Observatory near San Jose to search for optical laser signals from other planets.

For the Breakthrough Listen program, UC 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.

Siemion says his team will be listening for “weak signals” coming from the nearest 1000 star systems. It’s not like what you see in the movies, picking up alien speech on an FM radio. Instead, it’s more like tuning in to any signals that might be there on a really powerful, military grade microwave receiver. What we’ll be listening for is civilizations that are just a few years ahead of us on the technological time table. We obviously can’t predict what communication techniques might be being used – and there may be some we simply can’t detect at all, such as passing information back and forth via quantum entangled objects which have no information stream one could intercept.

Nobody expects results right away. The effort will take a long time, and frankly, may still produce no results at all. But finally, after 20 years of struggling, SETI finally has the resources it needs to concentrate on the work without worrying whether private funding could be pulled at any moment.

Are we truly alone in the universe? Logic says no, evidence collected so far says yes. The effort will take a long time. The other questions happen after that. But finally, after more than 20 years of struggling, SETI research has a safety net, and researchers can concentrate on finding out whether or not we’re alone in the universe. Or at least in our galactic neighborhood.

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