If its first quarter is anything to go by, 2016 may be shaping up historically as the 1491 of space discovery. The month preceding Valentine’s Day alone provided what would once have been a year’s worth of cosmic news. Blue Origin, the aerospace company owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, took one giant leap toward a new Age of Discovery by relaunching and landing a rocket that had already made a round-trip journey through the stratosphere – a revolutionary moment in private space exploration. A pair of researchers kicked off a frenzied planet hunt by demonstrating that a massive, heretofore undetected planet could be lurking on the outer edge of our solar system. Cosmologist Stephen Hawking suggested that unforeseen effects of rapid scientific progress might, paradoxically, cause the extinction of life on Earth in the next thousand years or so, adding, “By that time, we should have spread out into space, and to other stars, so a disaster on Earth would not mean the end of the human race.” And scientists announced they’d detected gravitational waves, evidence of a billion-year-old collision between black holes, thus confirming the final and most obscure principle of Einstein’s theory of relativity – and opening a window that may soon offer a glimpse of the universe’s very creation.
Meanwhile, in a restricted swath of Appalachia where cell service and Wi-Fi are prohibited to minimize radio interference, a team of astrophysicists and programmers from UC-Berkeley inaugurated a new interstellar exploration at the Robert C. Byrd telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia. Titled Breakthrough Listen, this 10-year, $100 million project will comprise what Andrew Siemion, director of Berkeley’s SETI Research Center, called “the most sensitive, comprehensive and advanced search for advanced intelligent life on other worlds ever performed.” (SETI stands for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.) The goal is to detect some evidence of distant technology, such as radio communication or a concentrated burst of energy. If it succeeds, Breakthrough Listen will answer an existential and philosophical question that humankind has pondered for millennia: Are we alone in the universe?
Self-deprecation is an essential job requirement for those who work in a field of scientific inquiry frequently associated with flying saucers and requests to be taken to one’s leader; SETI folks tend to use the terms “E.T.” and “little green men” to describe the hypothetical advanced life-forms that might be capable of sending an identifiable signal through space. “I get into a lot of conversations at parties about Ancient Aliens and the pyramids,” Siemion says with resignation. He is 35, young for a SETI field that previously peaked in the era between Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and the mothballing of NASA’s own SETI program due to budget cuts in 1993. Arriving for lunch at a meticulously rustic Berkeley locavore restaurant in a full-zip fleece with a backpack over one shoulder, Siemion could pass for an undergraduate on the nearby campus were it not for his clean-shaven head.
What separates the quest to find extraterrestrial intelligence from X-Files conspiracy theories is statistics, specifically the law of large numbers. Scientists now estimate that there are at least 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and perhaps 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Fifty billion planets in our galaxy alone may be situated in what astrophysicists call the “Goldilocks zone,” a region neither too hot nor too cold to host life, and thus potentially habitable. Last year, astronomers found evidence of briny water on Mars and located a distant exoplanet – dubbed Kepler 452b – so similar to Earth that some say the two could be cousins. “The latest estimates are that roughly one in 10 stars has a planet on which biology could survive,” says Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the nonprofit SETI Institute. “Even if only one in a million worlds is good enough to develop intelligent life, there are a trillion planets in the galaxy. Which would mean a million worlds with intelligent life.”
Breakthrough Listen is funded by soft-spoken Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner (named after Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space). Like many SETI fanatics, Milner read Sagan’s Intelligent Life in the Universe as a boy. After pursuing a Ph.D. in physics, Milner later made a fortune investing in companies such as Facebook. As middle-aged rich guys tend to do, Milner, 54, is considering his legacy; along with fellow Silicon Valley entrepreneurs including Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin, he founded the Breakthrough Prizes, which bestow seven-figure awards on leading scientists and mathematicians. Breakthrough Listen is a quest to achieve what Milner has called a “low-probability but high-impact event.” A scientific unicorn.