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Stephen Hawking sets up humanity’s largest search for alien intelligence

An artist's concept depicts Kepler-186f, the first validated extrasolar Earth-size planet ever found that is in the habitable zone of its star, a range of distance from a parent star where liquid water might pool on the planet's surface (NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech)

Renowned theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking has launched the most extensive search for intelligent alien life on other planets.

"In an infinite universe, there must be other occurrences of life," said Hawking at the launch event of the $100-million 10-year project at the Royal Society science academy in London on Monday.

The Breakthrough Listen project, scheduled to start in January 2016, is funded by Russian tech entrepreneur Yuri Milner and will grant researchers access to two of the most powerful radio telescopes on the planet.

The scientists of the project, including British Astronomer Royal Lord Martin Rees and University of California, Berkeley, astronomer Geoffrey Marcy, will use the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, the Unites States, and the Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia, to listen for messages from the one million stars closest to Earth in the Milky Way as well as the 100 closest galaxies beyond the Milky Way.

The project will also use the help of the Automated Planet Finder Telescope at Lick Observatory - situated on the summit of Mount Hamilton in the Diablo Range just east of San Jose, California - to search for optical signals coming from alien laser transmissions, using techniques a thousand times more effective than previous methods to detect interstellar laser signals.

The initiative claims that their listening and observing devices will cover 10 times more of the sky than previous projects, scan five times more of the radio spectrum, and 100 times faster.

"Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps, intelligent life may be watching,” Hawking said during the event, adding, "Either way, there is no bigger question. It's time to commit to finding the answer, to search for life beyond Earth. It is important for us to know if we are alone in the dark."

The Breakthrough Listen launch at the Royal Society in London on July 20, 2015 with (L to R) Yuri Milner, Stephen Hawking and Lord Martin Rees (The Guardian photo)

“The universe is apparently bulging at the seams with the ingredients of biology… We will be examining something like 10 billion radio channels simultaneously… We're listening to a cosmic piano, and every time we listen with the telescopes, we'll be listening not to 88 keys, but 10 billion keys,” planet-hunting pioneer Marcy, who found most of our first exoplanets, said during the conference.

Milner, best known for investing in technology companies like Facebook and Alibaba, said technology has now reached a point that humans have “a real chance” to find out if they are alone in the universe. The Russian tycoon will foot the entire bill of the initiative. Milner also announced another initiative, Breakthrough Message, a competition to create messages to send out to other civilizations scattered throughout the cosmos.

"It's a great way to develop a degree of awareness of what it is to be human, to be self-aware, to be alive," Ann Druyan, the creative director of the Interstellar Message on NASA Voyager and widow of famed astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan, said at the event.

Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner attends a press conference in London on July 20, 2015 on the Breakthrough Initiative, a new project to attempt to detect life in the Cosmos. (AFP)

“With Breakthrough Listen, we’re committed to bringing the Silicon Valley approach to the search for intelligent life in the Universe,” added Milner. “Our approach to data will be open and taking advantage of the problem-solving power of social networks.” 

Parts of the vast amount of data, which will be collected in the project, are to be processed by the University of Berkeley’s the SETI@home program, in which nine million volunteers around the globe have donated their extra computing power to search data for alien radio signals.

“For thousands of generations people have been asking: are we alone? The answer is profound either way,” said co-founder of SETI@home, Dan Werthimer. “If we find that the universe is teeming with life, we can learn how they get through their bottlenecks when they were killing each other, and we can become part of the galactic civilization. But it’s also profound if we are alone. If that’s the case, we’d better take pretty damn good care of life on this planet,” he added.

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