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An Internet Billionaire Just Pledged $100 Million to Search for Extraterrestrial Life

More telescope time, better equipment could help scientists figure out what’s out there

(Frans Lanting/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Is there life beyond Earth? The jury’s still out — and given the expense and sheer scope of the task of detecting signals from other worlds, it has long seemed too daunting for many scientists. But that could be about to change — Wired’s Sarah Zhang reports that billionaire investor Yuri Milner will throw $100 million at a project to scan the universe for signals from alien civilizations.

Milner’s project is being called the Breakthrough Listen initiative, writes Zhang, and it’s being touted as the most comprehensive SETI (search for extraterrestrial life) project ever undertaken. Funded by Milner and the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, the project will work with institutions like UC Berkeley to put more resources toward finding far-off life than ever before.

Zhang reports that the project will make two major purchases with all that cash: “significant” observation time on radio telescopes in West Virginia and Australia and specialized electronics to both gather and process huge amounts of data from beyond.

In a release, a project leader notes that the cash infusion will increase SETI capabilities by an order of magnitude: with more dedicated telescope time and new equipment, scientists should be able to make SETI searches 50 times more sensitive, cover ten times more sky, and analyze five times the number of radio wavelengths.

So why’s a tycoon known for his investments in internet companies like Twitter and Airbnb helping scientists eavesdrop on potential alien life? The answer is simple, says Milner, who was named after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. He tells The Guardian’s Ian Sample that he believes trying to figure out if humans are alone in the universe is a responsibility, not a luxury: “We cannot afford not to do this.”

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