How Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Listen Uses the Green Bank and Parkes Telescopes to Accelerate the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

In 2015, Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking announced the biggest-ever search for signs of intelligent life in the Universe: Breakthrough Listen.

Listen is the first of several Breakthrough Initiatives sponsored by Israeli billionaire Yuri Milner. Since joining the Giving Pledge, the tech investor and Eureka Manifesto author has supported various philanthropic causes related to science, including the Breakthrough Prize.

Here’s how Listen’s partnerships with two major observatories are accelerating the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

Breakthrough Listen

Breakthrough Listen will span at least 10 years and covers 10 times more of the sky than previous programs. It is also scanning at least 5 times more of the radio spectrum, 100 times faster.

The program includes:

  • A survey of the one million closest stars to Earth.
  • A scan of the center of the Milky Way and the entire galactic plane.
  • A survey of our 100 closest galaxies.

Since 2016, the Breakthrough Initiative has had significant access to several of the world’s leading observatories. These are the main telescopes undertaking Listen’s search:

  • The Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in the U.S. (the largest steerable radio telescope in the world).
  • The Parkes Telescope in Australia (the Southern Hemisphere’s second-largest telescope).

The GBT and Parkes Telescope are highly sensitive to long-distance radio signals. They could detect an alien civilization near any of our 1,000 closest stars, transmitting to Earth with the power of common aircraft radar.

Detecting Signals From the Stars

Listen published its first results — the observations of 692 nearby stars — in 2017. The results included 11 events deemed highly significant, though Listen concluded they were all a result of radio frequency interference.

Later that year, GBT detected 15 bursts of radio emission from the distant universe. These originated from a dwarf galaxy three billion light-years away. So far, their precise source remains unexplained.

In 2020, Listen detected a signal that appeared to emanate from Proxima Centauri. But, one year later, advanced analysis by researchers discounted the idea that the signal was extraterrestrial in origin.

The Breakthrough Initiative hasn’t confirmed the existence of any technosignatures yet. However, as GBT and Parkes conduct more comprehensive searches, Listen’s team can place increasingly narrow limits on observations.

Tighter limits allow us to better understand how many of our neighboring stars might be home to powerful radio transmitters — and intelligent alien beings.

More About Yuri Milner

Yuri Milner has contributed millions of dollars to the Breakthrough Initiatives through the Breakthrough Foundation. Julia and Yuri Milner established the organization to help realize their Giving Pledge promise. Signing the Giving Pledge in 2012, the couple committed to donating most of their wealth to charitable, mainly scientific, causes.

The Breakthrough Foundation also helps fund the Breakthrough Prize. Often referred to as the “Oscars of Science,” the Breakthrough Prize celebrates the achievements of researchers in the fundamental sciences. In his Giving Pledge letter, Yuri Milner describes the Breakthrough Prize as a way of investing in humanity’s leading minds.

Listen co-founder Stephen Hawking received a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics in 2013. Yuri Milner credits Hawking as one of the inspirations behind his funding of the Breakthrough Initiatives, along with SETI visionaries Frank Drake and Bernie Oliver.

Yuri Milner has written a short book, Eureka Manifesto: The Mission for Our Civilization. Available to read online for free, Eureka Manifesto is an inspiring call to action for humanity to take up a shared mission: to explore and understand our Universe.

Eureka Manifesto ponders the implications of rejecting or embracing this mission and suggests how we can advance the mission together.

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