Since 2016, the Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in the U.S. and the Parkes Telescope in Australia have scanned the skies for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Their parabolic dish antennae act like enormous ears, hoping to catch a radio signal that could only originate from a technological, alien source.
These telescopes work with Breakthrough Listen, one of Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Initiatives. Yuri Milner is also the co-founder of the Breakthrough Prize, a Giving Pledge signatory, and the author of Eureka Manifesto: The Mission for Our Civilisation.
Breakthrough Listen’s Partnerships
Breakthrough Listen is a $100 million astronomical programme that furthers the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The programme, which started in 2015 and will span at least 10 years, works with powerful telescopes in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. These telescopes include the GBT and the Parkes Telescope.
GBT is the world’s largest steerable radio telescope. Its state-of-the-art detectors and data processing have allowed Listen to improve the sensitivity of previous SETI searches several thousand times.
With a 64-metre diameter movable radio dish, the Parkes Observatory is the second-largest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. Its receiver can search 13 places in the sky at once.
Together, the two telescopes cover 10 times more of the sky than previous SETI searches.
Making SETI History
Since 2015, Listen has made several interesting findings thanks to the GBT and the Parkes Telescope. These include GBT’s observations of a dwarf galaxy three billion light years away, which revealed 15 bursts of radio emission. This was the first time anyone had seen bursts from this source at these frequencies.
In 2019, Listen released a detailed analysis of 1,327 nearby stars that the GBT and the Parkes Telescope had scanned. This was the most comprehensive and sensitive radio search in SETI history.
Ruling Out False Signals
Both telescopes are searching vast numbers of stars, galaxies, and other cosmic targets. If they detect an unusual signal, Listen’s team works to rule out interference from terrestrial or natural sources.
In 2020, Listen discovered a signal that seemed to come from the nearby star Proxima Centauri. However, Listen researchers conducted an advanced data analysis process and ruled out the possibility of the signal’s extraterrestrial origin.
This result demonstrated the programme’s ability to discern “false positives,” contributing to SETI’s growing reputation as a “rigorous field of experimental science.”
Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Initiatives
The Breakthrough Initiatives are a suite of space science programmes founded and funded by Yuri Milner and his wife Julia. There are four other programmes besides Listen: Watch, Starshot, Message, and Discuss.
Yuri Milner credits Stephen Hawking, Frank Drake, and Bernie Oliver for inspiring the SETI focus of the Breakthrough Initiatives. The programmes also represent part of Yuri Milner’s Giving Pledge promise.
Established by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, the Giving Pledge encourages the world’s wealthiest individuals to donate to charity. The Milners joined the Giving Pledge in 2012, vowing to fund primarily scientific causes.
The Breakthrough Prize
Their Giving Pledge vow led the Milners to set up the Breakthrough Foundation, an organisation that sponsors the Breakthrough Prize. The largest scientific awards in the world (each main prize is $3 million), the Breakthrough Prize rewards the work of the world’s top scientists.
The Breakthrough Initiatives seek answers to some of the Universe’s biggest questions, including whether there is intelligent life amongst the stars.
Yuri Milner explores some of these questions in his short book Eureka Manifesto. Published in 2021, Eureka Manifesto argues that humanity should unite around a shared mission to explore and understand our Universe.