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Stephen Hawking was looking for alien life when he died. That search just got a big boost

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A $100 million donation by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner will fund a new alien-seeking initiative called Breakthrough Listen.
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Before his death in March, famed physicist Steven Hawking announced a $100 million project to find intelligent life among the stars. Now that push will redouble thanks to new technology that lets astronomers scan the galaxy like never before.

On Monday, the Breakthrough Listen project announced the launch of an expanded survey of stars in the Milky Way made possible by a “multi-beam” receiver installed on Australia’s Parkes Radio Telescope.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Russian investor Yuri Milner and Hawking debuted Breakthrough Listen in 2015 to collect massive amounts of deep space data and make it public in an open effort to identify signals pointing to alien life.

The new receiver will rely on 13 beams to scan a huge swath of space, quickly pulling data researchers will analyze “for signals that have indications of artificial origin,” according to the project’s announcement.

“With these new capabilities, we are scanning our galaxy in unprecedented detail,” Danny Price, Breakthrough’s Parkes Project Scientist at UC Berkeley, said in a statement. 

“By trawling through these huge datasets for signatures of technological civilizations, we hope to uncover evidence that our planet, among the hundreds of billions in our Galaxy, is not the only one where intelligent life has arisen.”

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Engineers from UC Berkeley installed the instrumentation, which will assist the telescope as it logs 1,500 hours of observations this year, according to the project. Data compiled during those hours will later be archived and analyzed for signals stemming from extraterrestrial technology.

While the project says the “vast majority” of signals picked up in such data come from earthlings — think cell phones and airplanes — the new receiver will also help sift through white noise to find relevant signals.

And what if researchers do find a signal from some alien life? “We should be wary of answering back,” the late Hawking said in a 2016 film.  “Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus — that didn’t turn out so well.”

Breakthrough Listen began using the Parkes telescope, located in New South Wales, in late 2016. But the Parkes at that time mostly looked at relatively nearby stars within a sample, according to the announcement.

The new receiver amounts to what CNET calls “way better hearing aids” for the scope, letting it take in millions of stars in the Milky Way and potentially record “over 5 million HD movies” in raw data by year’s end.

Follow Josh Hafner on Twitter: @joshhafner

More: Stephen Hawking: If aliens call, we should be ‘wary of answering’

More: Strange radio bursts detected from deep space

 

 

 

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