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Yuri Milner will spend $100 million to look for aliens

Russian entrepreneur's Project Breakthrough seeks radio signals from intelligent life

Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner is spending $100 million to fund a new search for extraterrestrial life. The venture capitalist announced the initiative at a press conference today in London, alongside Stephen Hawking and other scientists. The project, known as Breakthrough Listen, will allow researchers to scan the skies for signs of alien life over the next 10 years, covering 1 billion stars closest to Earth and 100 galaxies beyond the Milky Way.

According to The New York Times, two-thirds of Milner's money will be used to build equipment and hire astronomers, with the remainder used to rent out two of the world's largest radio telescopes, in West Virginia and Australia. Observation time at these telescopes has been limited for researchers, but Milner's funding will greatly expand their access. In an interview with Business Insider, Milner said the project will scan 10 times more of the sky than any previous effort, while covering a wider range of radio frequencies. He said it will also process data 100 times faster than before. Scientists will focus their search on electromagnetic signals sent by aliens, rather than evidence of non-intelligent lifeforms.

"We have a responsibility to not stop searching."

The team of researchers, based out of the University of California-Berkeley, includes Lord Martin Rees of Cambridge University, a former director of the NASA Ames Research Laboratory, and other leading astronomers. Frank Drake, the American astrophysicist who founded the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program, will also serve as an advisor.

Milner, who made a fortune off of early investments in Facebook and Twitter, also announced a $1 million competition, called Breakthrough Message, to create messages that could be sent to aliens. The 53-year-old billionaire pursued a PhD in physics before going into business, and was named after Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet astronaut who was the first person to enter outer space. Breakthrough Listen, he says, was inspired by Hawking, whom Milner describes as the project's "ideological leader."

"We have a responsibility to not stop searching," Milner tells The New York Times. "It should always be happening in the background. This is the biggest question. We should be listening."