EntertainmentListening to a Million Stars: Yuri Milner's Breakthrough Listen Initiative and the...

Listening to a Million Stars: Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Listen Initiative and the MeerKAT Observatory

Since its launch in 2015, Breakthrough Listen, a space science program aiding the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), has been listening to the stars for signs of alien civilizations. In December 2022, the program announced a collaboration with the MeerKat Observatory in South Africa that will enable Listen to search for more than a million stars in two years.

Listen is one of the Breakthrough Initiatives co-founded by Israeli billionaire, Giving Pledge signatory, and author of Eureka Manifesto Yuri Milner. 

Let’s take a closer look at the Breakthrough Initiatives and the pioneering partnership between MeerKAT and Listen.

Searching the Stars for Alien Life

With a budget of $100 million and access to some of the world’s most powerful instruments, Breakthrough Listen is the biggest search for alien signals ever undertaken. 

While Listen has spent years gathering data from impressive telescopes, the project recently announced a partnership with the biggest radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere: MeerKAT.

MeerKAT is one of the planet’s most sensitive radio telescopes, and it offers many benefits to Listening to’s research:

  • MeerKAT has 64 dishes that can capture an expansive view of the sky, expanding Listen’s quantity of search targets by 1,000 times.
  • The large antenna array means Listen’s program usually won’t mechanically move the dishes. (Meanwhile, single-dish telescopes must manually move to point at different targets.) This “commensal” mode of operating doesn’t impact the research of other astronomers using MeerKAT and allows Listen to collect data 24/7.
  • MeerKAT improves Listen’s ability to discount interfering signals from human technology (like satellites orbiting Earth) and improve data accuracy.
  • MeerKAT can help Listen recognize a transmitter equal to “Earth’s brightest radio beacons out to a distance of 250 light-years.”

According to the Breakthrough Initiatives Director, Dr. S. Pete Worden, among the first targets in the new search will be Proxima Centauri, a star in the Alpha Centauri system. “The team looks forward to sharing the first science results in the coming months,” he said.

About the Breakthrough Initiatives

Listen is part of a group of scientific and technological projects called the Breakthrough Initiatives. Listen was the first of these projects, established after Stephen Hawking suggested that tech and science philanthropist Yuri Milner invest in SETI as a research field. 

Since Listen’s launch, four more Breakthrough Initiatives have followed:

  1. Watch, a program that searches for “exo-Earths” (possible life-hosting planets).
  2. Starshot, a research and development program for interstellar nano-crafts.
  3. Discuss a yearly academic space science conference.
  4. MeThe messagean international contest sparsparkedas for messages that humanity could send to an alien civilization.

The Giving Pledge

Funding from the Breakthrough Foundation, which Yuri Milner and his wife Julia oinitiallyestablished to support the Breakthrough Prize, makes the Breakthrough Initiatives’ work possible. 

These, and other pioneering philanthropic projects, have contributed enormously to the world of science since the Milners made they're Giving Pledge in 2012. Established by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, the Giving Pledge encourages wealthy individuals to make a positive impact on the world by donating to good causes.

Eureka Manifesto: Humanity’s Mission

While the Breakthrough Initiatives satisfy part of the Milners’ Giving Pledge vow, they also represent a search for answers to some of the most fundamental questions in the Universe.

In his short book Eureka Manifesto, Yuri Milner emphasizes the importance of exploring the cosmos to find these answers and gain a better understanding of our place in the Universe. Published in 2021, Eureka Manifesto does important reading for anyone interested in space, SETI, or the future of humanity.

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