Is there anyone out there? A project back by the late Stephen Hawking wants to find out

The Breakthrough Listen Initiative aims to answer this question once and for all as it searches for signs of life among the stars…

It might be nearly 50 years since a human first walked on the Moon, but there’s still a lot of space left to explore. So many questions remain unanswered: are any other planets habitable? Will we ever colonise them? And, most importantly of all, Is there any other life out there?

One project aims to answer this last one. The Breakthrough Listen Initiative wants to find life among the stars and prove that Star Trek wasn’t so far-fetched after all. Here’s everything you need to know about it.

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What is the Breakthrough Listen Initiative?

It’s a project that hopes to uncover signs of life somewhere other than Earth. It’s the largest ever scientific research programme of its kind: it includes a survey of the million stars closest to Earth. It scans the centre of our galaxy and the entire galactic plane, while beyond the Milky Way, it listens for messages from the 100 closest galaxies to ours. If there’s life out there, chances are it’ll find it.

What does it hope to achieve?

To detect signs of life, so that we can contact other civilisations and hopefully learn from them.

How is it going about this?

It uses some of the most sophisticated and powerful instruments known to man. These include the world’s largest steerable radio telescope, the second largest telescope in the southern hemisphere, and even the Automated Planet Finder (the Levy Spectrometer, which picks up on laser communications from the difficult to detect near infrared to ultra-violet spectrums). The instruments are 50 times more sensitive than existing telescopes dedicated to finding signs of life.

What kind of coverage does it get?

In all, the instruments cover 10 times more of the sky than previous programmes. They also cover at least five times more of the radio spectrum, and do it 100 times faster. To put it into perspective, they can pick up a sound equivalent to an aircraft radar transmission from any of the nearest 1000 stars.

One piece of hardware – the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia (pictured above) – recently had an upgrade, making it capable of processing 130 gigabits per second of observational data taken from space. With 1,500 hours of observation time from the Parkes telescope in 2018, the project will collect almost 100 petabytes of data – that’s the equivalent of over 5 million high definition films.

This data will be archived, open sourced and analysed in search of signals from extra-terrestrials.

Who’s backing it?

Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg is a backer, as was the late physicist Stephen Hawking.

What has it accomplished so far?

Plenty. It has investigated mysterious signals known as ‘fast radio bursts’, detected strange blips from a distant solar system, and picked up on the first interstellar object to come into our solar system (it was an asteroid, rather than an alien craft). It hasn’t found any signs of life yet, but it’s still early days for the project.

How long does it last?

Until 2025. It launched in 2015, and intends to last for 10 years. In total, it will cost $100 million (£74 million).

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