The Hardware Behind the Search for Intelligent Life

July 19, 2015 by Jennifer A. Diffley

Stephen Hawking and Yuri Milner join forces to begin the most intensive, comprehensive search for life the world has ever seen.

Yuri Milner, one of the world's 50 most prominent business men, and Stephen Hawking have joined forces to announce a $100 million Breakthrough initiative to stimulate an aggressive search for intelligent life in the universe. The iniative has two components: Breakthrough Listen--the most intensive search for intelligent life ever conducted--and Breakthrough Message, a competition gathering messages that represent the human experience on Earth that could be sent to whatever life is discovered.

Yuri and Hawking announcing the Breakthrough Initiatives in London

The initiative is intriguing, if for no other reason than the hardware propelling it. The initiative grants access to two of the world's largest telescopes. The first, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, is located in West Virginia and weighs over 17 million pounds. The GBT is the largest moving object on land and it can see 85% of the skies surrounding the Earth. It has a 200-foot feed arm that leads to a secondary mirror, which focuses radio waves into one of eight receivers. However, the GBT is already 15 years old: while its size is certainly impressive, if such massive advancements have been made in other areas of technology, the 15-year-old telescope may need significant upgrades before yielding desired results.


The Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia


The second telescope in the initiative is the Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia. The Parkes Telescope is over 50 years old, 64 meters in diameter, and has received consistent upgrades so that it's 10,000 times more sensitive now than it was when it was first built. The Parkes Telescope can detect radio waves from seven millimetres to four metres long, and be pointed with an accuracy of better than 11 arcseconds – about half an inch seen 150 metres away. 

But the question remains: if the initiatives are relying on the same hardware that hasn't detected intelligent life so far, why would it yield different results now? This program will cover 10 times more sky than previous programs and at least 5 times more of the radio spectrum, but that may not be enough. Perhaps the program should focus less on passive listening and more on stimulating responses. Or maybe scanning the sky for signals won't ever yield results-- especially if the civilizations have already evolved beyond the transmissions we're attempting to detect.

Still, every piece of information gathered behind the initiative will be available to the public, and the public is allowed to contribute to the hefty software developed for sifting through the big data generated by the program. If, after the ten years, the project has yielded no sign of intelligent life, at the very least it will tell us more about ourselves and how our hardware should evolve.