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Green Bank Telescope
The 100-meter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia is a part of Breakthrough Listen, giving the project a major telescope to use for SETI searches and the telescope a needed infusion of funds. (credit: NRAO)

A funding breakthrough for SETI

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More than 20 years ago, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) was left to fend for itself. Less than a year after NASA started a modest SETI program, called the High Resolution Microwave Survey, in 1992, Congress approved a spending bill that killed the $10-million-a-year program. The end of the survey was billed as a blow to wasteful spending, despite the small size of the program: “This hopefully will be the end of Martian hunting season at the taxpayers’ expense,” said Sen. Richard Bryan, who led the effort to end the program in 1993.

“The idea is to bring a Silicon Valley approach to the search,” Milner said.

Since then, SETI efforts have relied exclusively on private funding, and the ups-and-downs that come with it. There have been some successes, such as the commitment by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in 2001 to fund initial development of the Allen Telescope Array in California that would be dedicated to SETI searches. But the array has only been built out to a small fraction of its planned size, and the SETI Institute has struggled in recent years to keep in operating because of funding issues.

SETI, though, may have found its white knight. On July 20, Yuri Milner, a Russian investor whose early investments in Facebook and Twitter gave him a net worth of more than $3 billion, announced a ten-year, $100-million pledge to fund SETI research. The “Breakthrough Listen” project, which includes buying time on two radio telescopes and developing technologies to more effectively search for signals, is being billed as the most ambitious project since the modern SETI era began more than 50 years ago.

The project, Milner said at a London press conference to announce effort, is “bringing a completely different scale of technology to the problem” of detecting signals from extraterrestrial intelligences. That includes buying time on the 100-meter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the 64-meter Parkes Telescope in Australia.

Breakthrough Listen will get 25 percent of the time on the Parkes telescope for five years starting next July, Australia’s science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, said in a statement. The project will use about 20 percent of the time at Green Bank for five years, starting early next year. The effort will pay $2 million per year during that time to access the telescope, according to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which operates Green Bank.

In addition to the search for radio signals, Breakthrough Listen includes an optical SETI component. The initiative will use a 2.4-meter telescope at California’s Lick Observatory to search for laser pulses that might be also represent communications from other civilizations.

Besides buying telescope time, Breakthough Listen also plans to develop technologies to improve SETI searches. That includes detectors capable of operating over a wider range of frequencies while also being more sensitive, and software to more efficiently analyze the data collected. It will use the distributed computing network established by SETI@home more than 15 years ago.

“The idea is to bring a Silicon Valley approach to the search,” Milner said. “That means an approach to data that is transparent, that is innovative, and that uses the problem-solving power of social networks.”

“The payoff would be so colossal in recognizing that there was life elsewhere that this investment is hugely worthwhile,” said Sir Martin Rees.

“There are several ways in which this new SETI program will be deeper, more sensitive, and superior to past programs,” University of California Berkeley astronomy professor Geoff Marcy said in a teleconference with reporters after the announcement. That includes at least five times the frequency coverage of previous searches, five to ten times better sensitivity, and “factors of many” more stars and galaxies included in the survey, he sais.

“The payoff would be so colossal in recognizing that there was life elsewhere that this investment is hugely worthwhile,” said Sir Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, at the London press conference. He cited advances in technology, discoveries of exoplanets that raised the prospects of life beyond Earth, and the growing role of citizen science as reasons why this particular effort looked so promising.

The vast majority of Milner’s $100 million will go to the SETI search efforts. However, a small amount of funding will be used for a companion project, called Breakthrough Message, that includes $1 million in prizes in a competition to craft a message that “represent humanity and planet Earth,” according to a statement about the effort.

Given the controversy in some quarters about transmitting deliberate messages into the cosmos (see “Who speaks for Earth, and does it really matter?”, The Space Review, March 9, 2015), Milner and others involved in Breakthrough Message said they have no plans to transmit any messages collected as part of this competition.

“This is not a commitment to send messages,” Milner said. “It’s a way to learn about constraints and possibilities of interstellar communication, and to encourage global discussion on the ethical issues of sending messages into space.”

Both Breakthrough Message and Breakthrough Listen are being run by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, whose new chairman is a familiar name in the space community: Pete Worden, former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center. Worden left Ames earlier this year offering few hints about his future plans.

Worden said the opportunity to lead this effort was the reason he left NASA after a sometimes-controversial tenure of nearly nine years at Ames. “I have to say that it was this opportunity that enticed me away from NASA,” he said at the media teleconference. “The opportunity to move forward extremely quickly with the world’s best scientists and best instruments is very exciting.”

Those involved with SETI welcomed Milner’s contribution. “For once, after all these years of being guest observers and poverty stricken, we will finally have stable funding so that we can plan for one year to the next, we can hire very talented people to carry out the work,” said Frank Drake, professor emeritus of astronomy at the University of California Santa Cruz and widely considered the founder of modern SETI.

Breakthrough Listen has benefits beyond a search for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations. The data collected by the search effort will be available for astronomers to analyze for natural astrophysical phenomenon. Drake said that could offer some stability to astronomers working on SETI, and take away some of the perceived stigma of working in this area.

“You don’t get pay raises when you don’t produce results,” he said. Astronomers “need to do work that is rewarding and gives them a career path to greater opportunities, better salaries, and so forth.” That means, he said, mixing SETI work with “standard astronomical research” that supports a typical career path in astronomy.

“The data we do examine and store may reveal new astronomical objects that nobody ever dreamed of,” said Marcy, given the scope of the search. “There’s a chance of discovering the unexpected.”

And what happens if, at the end of his ten-year commitment, Breakthrough Listen comes up empty? “It’s a really good conversation to have in ten years,” Milner said.

Another benefit not strongly emphasized in the Breakthrough Listen announcement is that the funding offers a lifeline to the Green Bank and Parkes telescopes. The future of both telescopes was in question because of reduced funding from the US and Australian governments; the National Science Foundation (NSF) included Green Bank on a recent list of facilities it was considering for “divestment” in the coming years because of its limited budget.

There were, though, some notable omissions in the Breakthrough Listen announcement. The Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, currently the world’s largest at 300 meters in diameter (a 500-meter radio telescope is under construction in China) has often been used by privately-funded SETI searches in the last two decades. However, last month’s announcement made no mention of the telescope.

Robert Kerr, the director of Arecibo, told Scientific American last month that he had been approached by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation about participating in the project, but claimed he was caught in a catch-22: in order to accept the private funding that could supported continued use of the telescope, the observatory might lose its current NSF funding (Arecibo is also included in the NSF’s ongoing divestment review.) Any loss of funding, an NSF official said, would depend on the details of the agreement, which the NSF has not seen.

Also absent from the announcement was the SETI Institute itself. That organization has led most private SETI efforts since the end of the NASA program, including observations at various radio telescopes and development of the Allen Telescope Array. “Today’s announcement from the Breakthrough Prize Foundation is terrific news for all involved in SETI research,” the organization said in a statement. “The SETI Institute congratulates our colleagues and looks forward to joining them as additional Breakthrough Prize Foundation projects are rolled out.”

Worden said there were opportunities for future cooperation with the SETI Institute. “Certainly in the future we’re planning on discussions with the SETI Institute and the Allen Telescope Array about possible roles they could perform,” Worden said. “One of our key objectives here is to really mobilize the world’s instruments for a SETI search.”

Milner said that his interest in SETI had deep roots. “My motivation is pretty simple,” he said. “I’ve been following this space for a long time, really beginning when I was a child and I was reading the books of Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov. But recently I was inspired by the Kepler mission.” He added he has lifelong ties of a different kind to space as well: born in the former Soviet Union in 1961, his mother named him after historic cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

And what happens if, at the end of his ten-year commitment, Breakthrough Listen comes up empty? “It’s a really good conversation to have in ten years,” he said. “But sitting here today, we as human beings have a responsibility to continue this project.”

Marcy said that even if the search comes up empty, the thoroughness of the search should set some strong upper limits on what might be detected in future efforts. “What we demand is that we set clear detection thresholds, some number of watts emitted by other civilizations,” he said. “We must know what that wattage was that we would have detected, and any power above that wattage we have to be able to rule it out explicitly.”

“But I think as long as we collectively believe that it is an endeavor worth funding, I think we should keep going,” Milner said. “If we don’t find anything, I think we should just keep going until such time that we have some reasonable chance to draw some conclusions.”