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The $100 Million Hunt for Alien Life

A Russian billionaire and his renegade scientists are launching the most advanced search for extraterrestrials in history.

If it’s first quarter is anything to go by, 2016 may be shaping up historically as the 1491 of space discovery. The month preceding Valentine’s Day alone provided what would once have been a year’s worth of cosmic news. Blue Origin, the aerospace company owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, took one giant leap toward a new Age of Discovery by relaunching and landing a rocket that had already made a round-trip journey through the stratosphere – a revolutionary moment in private space exploration. A pair of researchers kicked off a frenzied planet hunt by demonstrating that a massive, heretofore undetected planet could be lurking on the outer edge of our solar system. Cosmologist Stephen Hawking suggested that unforeseen effects of rapid scientific progress might, paradoxically, cause the extinction of life on Earth in the next thousand years or so, adding, “By that time, we should have spread out into space, and to other stars, so a disaster on Earth would not mean the end of the human race.” And scientists announced they’d detected gravitational waves, evidence of a billion-year-old collision between black holes, thus confirming the final and most obscure principle of Einstein’s theory of relativity – and opening a window that may soon offer a glimpse of the universe’s very creation.

Meanwhile, in a restricted swath of Appalachia where mobile service and Wi-Fi are prohibited to minimise radio interference, a team of astrophysicists and programmers from UC-Berkeley inaugurated a new interstellar exploration at the Robert C. Byrd telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia. Titled Breakthrough Listen, this 10-year, $100 million project will comprise what Andrew Siemion, director of Berkeley’s SETI Research Centre, called “the most sensitive, comprehensive and advanced search for advanced intelligent life on other worlds ever performed”. (SETI stands for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.) The goal is to detect some evidence of distant technology, such as radio communication or a concentrated burst of energy. If it succeeds, Breakthrough Listen will answer an existential and philosophical question that humankind has pondered for millennia: Are we alone in the universe?

Self-deprecation is an essential job requirement for those who work in a field of scientific inquiry frequently associated with flying saucers and requests to be taken to one’s leader; SETI folks tend to use the terms “E.T.” and “little green men” to describe the hypothetical advanced life-forms that might be capable of sending an identifiable signal through space. “I get into a lot of conversations at parties about Ancient Aliens and the pyramids,” Siemion says with resignation. He is 35, young for a SETI field that -previously peaked in the era between Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and the mothballing of NASA’s own SETI program due to budget cuts in 1993. Arriving for lunch at a -meticulously rustic Berkeley locavore restaurant in a full-zip fleece with a backpack over one shoulder, Siemion could pass for an undergraduate on the nearby campus were it not for his clean-shaven head.

What separates the quest to find extraterrestrial intelligence from X-Files conspiracy theories is statistics, specifically the law of large numbers. Scientists now estimate that there are at least 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and perhaps 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Fifty billion planets in our galaxy alone may be situated in what astrophysicists call the “Goldilocks zone”, a region neither too hot nor too cold to host life, and thus potentially habitable. Last year, astronomers found evidence of briny water on Mars and located a distant exoplanet – dubbed Kepler 452b – so similar to Earth that some say the two could be cousins. “The latest estimates are that roughly one in 10 stars has a planet on which biology could survive,” says Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the nonprofit SETI Institute. “Even if only one in a million worlds is good enough to develop intelligent life, there are a trillion planets in the galaxy. Which would mean a million worlds with intelligent life.”

Breakthrough Listen is funded by soft-spoken Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner (named after Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space). Like many SETI fanatics, Milner read Sagan’s Intelligent Life in the Universe as a boy. After pursuing a Ph.D. in physics, Milner later made a fortune investing in companies such as Facebook. As middle-aged rich guys tend to do, Milner, 54, is considering his legacy; along with fellow Silicon Valley entrepreneurs including Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin, he founded the Breakthrough Prizes, which bestow seven-figure awards on leading scientists and mathematicians. Breakthrough Listen is a quest to achieve what Milner has called a “low-probability but high-impact event”. A scientific unicorn.

“Either way, the answer is interesting,” says Dan Werthimer, who as Berkeley -SETI’s chief scientist complements Siemion’s youthful confidence with an optimism undimmed by 40 years of fruitless alien-hunting. (A third member of the Berkeley SETI team, noted exoplanet hunter Geoffrey Marcy, resigned from the university and Breakthrough Listen in October following a sexual-harassment scandal. Breakthrough Prize chairman Pete Worden says they are now “in touch and getting his scientific opinions”.) “If we find E.T. it means the universe is teeming with life,” Werthimer says. “But if we find we’re alone, then we’d really better take care of the precious life on this planet.”

The 140-metre-tall Robert C. Byrd telescope in West Virginia listens for radio signals from other life-forms

The new space race is being driven largely by billionaires like Milner who grew up staring at the stars before building terrestrial-tech fortunes. Cost-efficient travel to the stratosphere and beyond, which just a generation ago was the failed dream of the $200 billion Space Shuttle program, is now a reality thanks to fierce competition among companies like Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX. (SpaceX, which builds rockets much more powerful than its rival’s, stuck the landing of a reusable vehicle in December.) Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and its less-flashy rival XCOR are taking reservations on their first suborbital tourism flights. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen – who prior to Milner was SETI’s best-known benefactor – hopes to build the world’s largest airplane, a mothership designed to launch rockets from 30,000 feet.

Every space nerd’s dream destination, of course, is Mars. NASA hopes to get a team there in the 2030s. Musk, a vocal Mars obsessive whose SpaceX has partnered with NASA on various projects, has vowed not to take his company public until it lands a craft on the Red Planet. The controversial Mars One project, headquartered in the Netherlands, has claimed that more than 200,000 hopefuls applied for its permanent, one-way trip, with touchdown projected for 2027.

“Governments tend not to do speculative stuff, and long-term space commitments are expensive,” says Worden, former head of NASA’s Ames Research Centre, who announced he was stepping down last February, saying he wanted “to pursue some long-held dreams in the private sector”. Shortly thereafter, Milner introduced him as the new chairman of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, which oversees Breakthrough Listen. Shaking the ice in his plastic cup at the Tee Minus One Bar & Grill on the Moffett Field air base near Mountain View, California, dressed in an old blue NASA work shirt, Worden explains why he thinks venture capitalists will lead future exploration in space. “People always ask why Silicon Valley is different,” he says. “The best answer I’ve heard is that this is a place where it’s all right to fail. Not only is it right, it’s expected.”

Worden is both a former astronomy professor and a retired Air Force general. He says there are two sides to the question of life in the universe, one academic and one strategic. First, what else is out there? “What is life, how did it originate, where else is it and what’s its future?” he asks. “What’s the origin and structure of the universe? How did it begin? These have been the fundamental questions since the Scientific Revolution began 500, 600 years ago.”

The less-philosophical side of the question is when Earthlings will launch their offensive into space. “Whether it’s going to happen in 2030 or 2050 or 2080, I don’t know,” Worden says. “But this is the century when humanity moves into the galaxy.”

That exodus may end up recalling old issues of Omni magazine more than it does the original Apollo missions. NASA’s current estimate is that the voyage to Mars could take up to a year, each way, requiring many times the food, water and fuel used for three-day trips to the moon. Twenty-five years ago, the tab for a Mars mission was estimated at $400 billion. If the payloads can be drastically reduced, however, costs will also shrink.

One technology Worden sees as having the potential to take us to the stars – “ ’us’ being what we become”, he says – is artificial intelligence. “You send some sort of essence of yourself, like an avatar,” he says. “It would be settling the solar system and beyond with machines.” Another popular scenario among futurists imagines the creation of von Neumann probes: self-replicating machines that travel to distant worlds, locate the ingredients needed to create more advanced copies of themselves, and repeat the process as they continue deeper into space. Worden sees promise in synthetic biology, transforming the raw materials of distant worlds into physical necessities that would otherwise need to be transported to support a crew, such as food and shelter. “Then all I need to transmit between worlds is information, and information travels at the speed of light,” he says.

Like deep-space travel, SETI work has until now been largely speculative; one certainty is that no one has ever found any concrete evidence of extraterrestrial life. Like the universe itself, the list of potential glitches is infinite. Assuming that distant civilisations exist, they could have a head start of millions of years, in which case an interstellar missive may have gone undetected by Neanderthals. E.T. might already be here, operating under a Prime Directive, as the crew of the Enterprise did, observing us but forbidden to interfere. Whistle-blower Edward Snowden has suggested that aliens could even be using advanced encryption that disguises their signals, rendering them “indistinguishable to us from cosmic microwave background radiation”.

Echoing Hawking’s warning, Musk sees a potential dark side in this cosmic silence. “If you look at our own current technology level, something strange has to happen to civilisations, and I mean strange in a bad way,” Musk said in a recent interview with Aeon. There may be a troubling reason why in the 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang, no aliens have contacted us: The same technological leaps that will allow human beings to explore the galaxy, such as self-upgrading AI, are the genie that betrays its master once released from the bottle. “It could be there are a lot of dead, one-planet civilisations,” Musk added.

Worden has a more optimistic explanation. “The most likely answer is that we haven’t looked very hard,” he says.

Milner’s Breakthrough Listen money will be spent on three things: leasing dedicated observation time at radio telescopes in West Virginia and Australia, as well as at an optical telescope at the University of California’s Lick Observatory; hiring the sorts of smart young scientists who until very recently would have been scared off from SETI because the field’s lack of funding equalled academic career suicide; and, perhaps most important, on building new technology to process the tsunami of new data that will be rolling in.

That responsibility will fall largely to Berkeley’s Werthimer. At 61, he is the sort of academic whom eager incoming freshmen expect to find on campus but rarely do: neatly bearded, wildly enthusiastic, respected in his field, gifted at explaining complicated ideas. He proudly wears his sci-fi nerdiness not only on his sleeve but also under it; the hands of his LIVE LONG AND PROSPER wristwatch rotate around the face of Mr. Spock. His role in the SETI world, transposed to the James Bond canon, would be roughly one part M and three parts Q. “I try to figure out if there’s some interesting problem in astronomy that I can solve by building some new gadget, because I know how to build gadgets,” Werthimer says. His team’s workshop inside Campbell Hall, Berkeley’s astronomy building, looks like the repair shop of a high-end home-theatre retailer; wood shelves are lined with stacks of memory boards and other electronic components.

For years, Werthimer has run the SETI@home project, a peer-to-peer network that dates back to the Napster era. Raw observational data collected in the background during other astronomers’ stargazing is sent to the home computers of millions of volunteers, where it is processed when those machines go into sleep mode, and then sent back to Berkeley. The trade-off for hitchhiking a free ride during others’ searches is that Werthimer and his team rarely had a say in deciding where to point the telescope. Breakthrough Listen puts them in the driver’s seat with 10 years’ worth of gas money.

About 60 years ago, scientists realised that since the laws of physics seemed to apply throughout the universe, the varieties of concentrated electromagnetic radiation that humans have found to be excellent modes of communication – such as waves used for AM/FM transmission – would also work to send messages across the galaxy. Any intelligent life-form would, presumably, learn to take advantage of the many practical uses of this radiation. Powerful radio telescopes might be able to eavesdrop on what physicists call “leakage”, a distant civilisation’s technological artefacts, akin to our radar and broadcast-TV waves that have escaped into space. “Earth sends off all these radio signals omnidirectionally, by accident,” Werthimer says. By now, “I Love Lucy has gone past thousands of stars.”

A more tantalising possibility is that some faraway entity has sent a deliberate signal to initiate contact with Earth. “We’ve had [breathable] oxygen in our atmosphere for 500 million years,” Werthimer says. “Maybe they’ve seen that and figured there might be life on this planet.” Some in the SETI field believe that the closest any researcher has come to discovering such a transmission was a powerful 72-second signal, detected at an Ohio State observatory in 1977, that appeared to be coming from the constellation Sagittarius. Despite numerous attempts, no one has been able to observe it again. An intergalactic “friend request” beamed through the cosmos could still be out there, just waiting to be accepted.

Left: Dan Werthimer is the chief scientist at Berkeley SETI. “If we find E.T., then it means the universe is teeming with life,” he says. Right: Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking in London last year.

Breakthrough listen will be gathering as much SETI data in a day as was previously possible to collect in a year, using its expanded telescope access to scan at least five times more of the radio spectrum a hundred times faster than before and sucking in the equivalent of 75 Blu-ray movies per second.

“What we do with radio SETI is a little like those shows about panning for gold on the Discovery Channel,” Siemion says. “We build this gigantic thing that sucks in data, and we sift it and sift it and sift it.” The optical telescope at Lick Observatory works in a similar manner, breaking down the light it collects from afar to search for evidence of an artificial compressed energy source such as a laser. If E.T. had illuminated a 100-watt bulb on a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri, 25 trillion miles away, the optical telescope is capable of spotting it and funnelling that information into Breakthrough Listen’s giant Big Data sieve.

Should an interesting nugget turn up from far away, a blip on a screen or a spike in a curve will trigger an alert on someone’s computer in Berkeley – hey, take a look at this. Any such phenomenon will be examined “very, very, very closely”, Siemion says – and then rechecked, Werthimer adds, to make sure there isn’t a bug in the software or a grad student pulling a prank. (When astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered the metronomic spinning stars now known as pulsars in 1967, the first signal was briefly nicknamed LGM-1, in case its source was a Little Green Man.) Astronomers at other telescopes will be asked to train their equipment on the coordinates to determine that the anomaly cannot be explained as a natural phenomenon. By the end of 2016, that group might include the Chinese, who are currently completing a telescope that will dwarf anything now in use by Breakthrough Listen.

As Werthimer fired up the system in West Virginia for the first time, in January, they even had a suspect to investigate. Last year, researchers noticed that the light from a distant star, KIC 8462852, seemed to be dimming according to an irregular pattern. The source is probably something natural – a comet is one likely possibility – but there’s a slim chance it could be evidence of far-off technology. Some have hypothesised the randomness is caused by a massive framework built by aliens to harness solar power. Werthimer says Breakthrough’s observations of the abnormality thus far have been inconclusive. “But if I had to guess,” he says, “I’d say it was a swarm of dust clouds.”

When Christopher Columbus sailed for India in 1492, he brought along an interpreter whose skills were a poor match for the Taino natives they unexpectedly encountered in the Caribbean. The Breakthrough Listen scientists like to compare themselves to the Columbus expedition and its implied outcome – a well-financed team of explorers sets off on a journey that rewrites history – but they plan to be better prepared. In tandem with Breakthrough Listen, Milner has set aside $1 million in prize money to formulate digital messages that might be sent to a newly discovered civilisation.

The problem of communicating may be largely academic, due to the distances involved; a transmission beamed to KIC 8462852, for example, would take almost 1,500 years to arrive. A more hopeful scenario is that Breakthrough Listen discovers a signal targeted at Earth that shows potential to be deciphered. Since the sender may not possess any of the five senses humans use to perceive the world – may not even be carbon-based, as all life on Earth is – the decryption process would almost certainly require some conceptual thinking.

Douglas Vakoch, a clinical psychologist who is president of METI International (the M stands for “messaging”), says that, ideally, any signal we receive would contain information that might be universal across civilisations, such as basic mathematics. (A string of prime numbers is the Golden Fleece of hypothetical alien transmissions.) From there, we might gain an understanding of “their scientific description of the world” and even perhaps their culture. Somewhat less exciting would be an experience familiar to archaeologists, who by compiling fragmentary evidence “are able to piece some things together but aren’t able to reconstruct the full world of this civilisation”, Vakoch says. Most likely, we’ll have to settle for “some vague understanding of what some part of their message refers to”.

Even such a vague understanding is a long shot. Just before announcing the project amid several eminences of astrophysics – including Hawking – in London last summer, Milner polled his team. Their educated guess was that Breakthrough Listen had a one per cent chance of success. Facing such odds, wouldn’t it make more sense to wait until humans have built telescopes on Mars and are sending cyborg probes into the far depths of the Milky Way?

“You could’ve told Christopher Columbus, ‘You’ll probably make it to India, just wait 500 years for airplanes’,” Werthimer says, fiddling with his Star Trek wristwatch. “We’re never going to answer these questions with paper and pencil. The only way to figure it out is to look.”

From Issue #776, available now.