Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Listen Collaborates With the MeerKAT Telescope to Scan a Million Stars for Extraterrestrial Signals

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Breakthrough Listen is the largest-ever scientific research program to seek evidence of civilizations beyond Earth. In 2018, the $100 million program announced a new partnership with the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO). Four years later, SARAO’s powerful MeerKAT radio telescope joined the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

Yuri Milner, the founder of the Breakthrough Initiatives, says the collaboration has turned Listen into a “truly global project.” The science philanthropist is also the mind behind the Breakthrough Prize and the short book Eureka Manifesto. Since joining the Giving Pledge in 2012, Yuri Milner has invested millions of dollars into chiefly scientific enterprises.

What Are the Breakthrough Initiatives?

The Breakthrough Initiatives are scientific programs that investigate some of the Universe’s most fundamental questions. The initiatives include Starshot, Message, Watch, Discuss, and Listen. Breakthrough Listen is searching for evidence of life beyond Earth in the form of “technosignatures.” These are radio signals that could only originate from advanced civilizations.

Yuri Milner cites Listen’s co-founder Stephen Hawking as an inspiration behind the billionaire’s support of the Breakthrough Initiatives, along with SETI pioneers Frank Drake and Bernie Oliver.

The Breakthrough Initiatives receive funding from Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Foundation. He established the Breakthrough Foundation with his wife Julia after they joined the Giving Pledge 10 years ago. Yuri Milner’s Giving Pledge letter highlights the importance of supporting brilliant scientists and scientific causes.

To help fulfill their Giving Pledge commitment, the Milners also created the Breakthrough Prize in partnership with Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan, Mark Zuckerberg, and Anne Wojcicki. The Breakthrough Prize is the world’s biggest science award. Each Breakthrough Prize laureate receives $3 million in recognition of their work in the fields of fundamental physics, mathematics, and the life sciences.

How Is the MeerKAT Array Helping Breakthrough Listen?

Since 2016, Listen has worked with several of the world’s leading observatories. Sensitive radio instruments, like the Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in the U.S., have helped Listen survey hundreds of nearby stars and galaxies and the entire galactic plane.

The recent SARAO collaboration enables Listen to supercharge its search for alien signals by a factor of 1,000. This is down to the unique capabilities of the MeerKAT Telescope. Situated in the remote Karoo region of South Africa, MeerKAT has an array of 64 dishes. These antennae can see an area of the sky 50 times greater than the GBT’s single, 100-meter diameter collecting area.

Additionally, while the GBT is fully steerable, MeerKAT can point each of its 64 dishes at an individual target. One of Listen’s first targets is Earth’s nearest neighbor star, Proxima Centauri.

Are We Alone?

It will take Listen two years to search over one million of our closest stars with the MeerKAT Telescope. MeerKAT allows for the detection of a transmitter equivalent to Earth’s brightest radio beacons up to a distance of 250 light-years. If there are alien signals out there, MeerKAT can help Listen find them.

The question is, what happens if we do discover proof of an extraterrestrial civilization? Yuri Milner discusses this possibility in his Eureka Manifesto.

Eureka Manifesto collates some of the philanthropist’s thoughts about humanity’s place in the Universe and promotes the idea of a shared mission for our civilization.

Statistically speaking, the chance of life existing in any form somewhere else in the Universe is entirely possible. As Yuri Milner reminds us in Eureka Manifesto, even if the emergence of life is unlikely, it could still be common. As a result, there’s a strong likelihood that intelligent life is out there, too.

So, are we alone? Listen’s observations with MeerKAT are now underway, and it won’t be long before the team shares the first results.

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