The project — dubbed Breakthrough Initiatives — is made up of two central programs: Breakthrough Listen and Breakthrough Message. Breakthrough Listen plans to make use of two of the world’s most powerful telescopes — located in West Virginia and New South Wales, Australia — over the course of a 10-year period. During the span of this decade, the telescopes intend to scan the closest million stars to Earth, effectively covering ten times the amount of sky of any prior program like it.
Each telescope also has the capacity to listen for unique messages from roughly 100 galaxies other than our own. More specifically, the program intends to make each telescope capable of picking up common aircraft radar from any of the closest 1,000 stars to Earth, basic transmissions from the center of the Milky Way, or even the energy from a standard light bulb from 25 trillion miles away.
“Somewhere in the cosmos perhaps intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean,” said Hawking during the project’s announcement, “or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos — unseen beacons, announcing that here, on one rock, the Universe discovered its existence.”
One of the project’s most interesting features is the fact it’s entirely open source with each nugget of data and relative software made available for public consumption. The public offering intends to partner with SETI@home — an already existing University of California, Berkeley project — to help avoid conducting multiple duplicate searches.
At a later date, Milner and Hawking also plan to unveil Breakthrough Message, a contest which tasks people with creating a unique digital message which describes mankind and the planet Earth. The winner of the contest gets to bag a cool $1 million and has the incredibly rare opportunity to be one of the first people to theoretically talk to alien life.
During the project’s announcement, Hawking acknowledged the search for alien life as one of the most pressing scientific questions deserving of an answer and feels incredibly confident in Breakthrough Initiative’s success. While Hawking believes the program has a very real chance of finding extraterrestrial life, he didn’t completely shut the door on mankind being alone.
“If a search of this scale and sophistication finds no evidence of intelligence out there it will be a very interesting result,” he said, “it will not prove that we are alone, but it will narrow the possibilities. It is important for us to know if we are alone in the dark.”
Regardless of how prosperous or effective the program turns out to be, Hawking left those attending the announcement with perhaps the most important statement facing Breakthrough Initiatives:
“We are alive. We are intelligent. We must know.”