Is anyone else out there? That simple question has hounded modern astronomers for decades, but so far, there's been no evidence of intelligent alien life beyond Earth. Now, scientists are getting serious about how and where they look.
The hunt for aliens is getting a $100 million upgrade, renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking announced in London on Monday. With that money, an international team of scientists led by astronomers in the United States plans to use the most state-of-the-art technology to scour the nearby universe for radio signals that could point to other intelligent civilizations, said Hawking, who has talked about the potential for alien visitors to Earth before. The 10-year effort, slated to begin in January and known as Breakthrough Listen, is expected to be the most comprehensive search for extraterrestrial life ever conducted.
"Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos — unseen beacons, announcing that here, on one rock, the Universe discovered its existence," Hawking said at the project's launch, according to the BBC. "Either way, there is no bigger question. It's time to commit to finding the answer — to search for life beyond Earth."
The project, funded by Russian physicist and billionaire Yuri Milner, will allow scientists to study a million stars in the nearest galaxies for signs of intelligent life, 10 times the range that astronomers could cover in the 1990s. Milner founded the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, which funds various science research.
"It's the most interesting technological question of our day," Milner said of the search, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. The purpose of the project, according to Milner, will be to learn not just whether there are other inhabited planets in the universe, but also to learn from the survival of other civilizations.
That includes how other planets have responded to dwindling natural resources, considered one of the biggest problems facing Earth today in the age of major development, staggering population growth and climate change. The world's population has grown more rapidly in the past five decades than in any other time in history, and has shown no signs of slowing down.
Scientists will use some of the most powerful and sophisticated radio telescopes on the planet from the U.S. and Australia, including the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, the Lick Observatory in California and the Parkes Observatory in New South Wales. The bulk of the cost of the project will go toward reserving the telescopes for months at a time.
Hawking said the research could answer critical questions about the universe. "Mankind has a deep need to explore, to learn, to know. We also happen to be sociable creatures. It is important for us to know if we are alone in the dark," said Hawking, according to the Guardian.
Astronomers have combed nearby stars for alien life before, but with disappointing results. Scientists said the latest quest would be the most sweeping effort yet. "Our search will be 100 times better than any previous search for intelligent life in the universe," Geoff Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley, which will lead the project, told the Wall Street Journal.