The most comprehensive ever search for alien life has been launched by Professor Stephen Hawking.
Scientists will scan one million of our nearest stars over the next 10 years to listen for signals that could come from an intelligent civilisation.
The project will scan 10 times more of the sky than previous searches and use technology that is 50 times more sensitive.
Speaking at the Royal Society, Prof Hawking said: “Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps, intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours aware of what they mean.
“Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos, unseen beacons announcing that here on our rock, the universe discovered its existence?
“Either way, there is no bigger question. It is time to commit to finding the answer – to search for life beyond Earth.”
The project will use the world’s two most powerful radio telescopes to listen for signals across 10 billion frequencies.
The Automated Planet Finder Telescope at Lick Observatory in California will also scan for laser transmissions.
So much data will be collected that cutting-edge computer technology is being developed to sift through the background noise for an intelligent signal.
Scientists behind the project say all the information will be made publicly available, and nothing will be covered up.
Astronomer Royal Lord Rees, who will chair the project, said: “We don’t know what we’ll see out there. It may be organic life. It may be machines made by a long-dead civilisation.
“But any signal, even if it’s hard to decode, if it’s manifestly artificial, will tell us that the concepts of logic and physics aren’t limited to the hardware in human skulls. It is elsewhere, and it will transform our view of the universe.”
The Breakthrough Initiative – founded by tech billionaire Yuri Milner – is putting up $100m (£64.2m) for the search.
He told Sky News that any signal is likely to come from a far more advanced civilisation with unknown intentions… and scientists are being cautious.
“Our project is only in the listening mode. We have no intention to send any signals proactively.
“The experts are divided on that subject.
“Because there is no conclusive position, we are taking a prudent position. But listening is a very innocent endeavour. In fact – the more we know, the better.”
Recent discoveries, largely from NASA’s Kepler space telescope, suggest at least 10% of stars in the Milky Way harbour a planet of almost Earth size with mild temperatures conducive to life.
Author: Thomas Moore