$100 Million Invested in the Search for Alien Life

By Ramon Mejia

Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking have announced a $100 million investment in SETI, a private US based group of researchers who search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

"We believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth," Hawking said yesterday in London at a press conference launching SETI’s new Breakthrough Listen initiative. "So in an infinite Universe, there must be other occurrences of life."

Most famously known for its role in the fictional movie Contact (1197), the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) is a non-profit research institute founded by American astronomer and astrophysicist, Frank Drake. According to their website their mission is “… to explore, understand, and explain the origin and nature of life in the universe, and to apply the knowledge gained to inspire and guide present and future generations.“

In recent years SETI had funding pulled by the federal government leading to layoffs and reduction of search capacity.

"Everyone lost their jobs. They weren’t able to keep going in the field," Director of the Berkeley SETI Research Centre, Andrew Siemion, told John Wenz at Motherboard. "It also scared everyone. It scared grad students, it scared post-docs, it scared researchers. No one wants to be involved in research where your funding can be pulled at any moment."

Commenting on how the new funding will impact the SET program one of the SETI founders, Andrew Siemion from the University of California, Berkeley, said "We would typically get 24 to 36 hours on a telescope per year, but now we’ll have thousands of hours per year on the best instruments. It’s difficult to overstate how big this is. It’s a revolution."

The entire $100 million investment comes straight from Milner’s pocket, an early investor in Facebook and Alibaba.  

"I've been thinking about this since I was a child, reading Carl Sagan's book Intelligent Life in the Universe," Milner told The Washington Post. "The year that I was born, 1961, that was a big year in science - the first man was launched into space, and I was named for him. And Kennedy made his famous speech about putting man on the Moon."

Milner says he doesn’t have high expectations that the project will turn up anything concrete, but says the search itself will be invaluable to science.