Stephen Hawking Teams Up With Russian Billionaire for $100 Million Alien Search

Stephen Hawking alien search
Professor Stephen Hawking speaks at a media event to launch the Breakthrough Initiatives at The Royal Society in London, Britain, July 20, 2015. Neil Hall/Reuters

Stephen Hawking is teaming up with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, to head up a $100 million project to search for extraterrestrial life in the biggest alien hunt ever staged.

The Cambridge physicist was at the Royal Society in London on Monday to launch the Breakthrough Initiatives, a group of research projects which will scan the 100 galaxies closest to the Milky Way over the next 10 years.The project is being funded solely by Milner, an entrepreneur whose previous investments include Facebook, Twitter and Chinese online retailer Alibaba, and whose net worth is estimated to be $3.4 billion by Forbes.

Two of the world's most powerful telescopes have been secured for the project, which commences in January 2016. The Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia and the Parkes Observatory in Australia will scour the skies for radio emissions from nearby galaxies, which could indicate the presence of intelligent extraterrestrial life. Simultaneously, California's Lick Observatory will undertake the world's broadest search for optical laser transmissions coming from other planets.

According to the project backers, the research will cover 10 times more of the sky than previous programs, surveying one million of the stars closest to Earth for signs of life. All the data generated from the project will be publicly available and the researchers will use open-source software, meaning that anyone with a telescope could potentially join in the search.

Lord Martin Rees, the British Astronomer Royal since 1995 and a former president of the Royal Society, is working alongside Hawking and a number of other world-leading astronomy authorities on the project. He told Newsweek that, while there are no guarantees that the project will be successful, even in failure it would still have huge implications for the Earth's place in the cosmos.

"It's of course a gamble, but it will stand a far better chance than any previous searches," says Lord Rees. "And if we are indeed alone, we can be less cosmically modest. Our Earth could be the most important place in the cosmos from which life could spread through the galaxy."

Malcolm Fairbairn, a researcher in particle physics and cosmology at King's College London, thinks the project is well worth Milner's huge investment."If the human race did discover intelligent life out there, it would change everything about how life on Earth would go ahead. It would change our own perspective on ourselves and on each other and it would change the way that we view ourselves in the universe," says Fairbairn.

The project is a landmark in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) movement. Much of the research conducted into alien life is done by the SETI Institute, which is based in California and runs on private donations and support. The Breakthrough projects will run alongside SETI@home, a crowdsourced research program where volunteers donate computer hours to search for radio signals from space.

NASA's chief scientist recently predicted that humanity would find signs of alien life within the next 10 years and would have definitive evidence in the next 20-30 years.