Breakthrough Prize Foundation search for extraterrestrial life

The Breakthrough Prize Foundation has signed a multi-million dollar agreement to use our 64-m Parkes radio telescope in eastern Australia to search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.

The Breakthrough Prize Foundation (BPF) has signed a multi-million dollar agreement to use our 64-m Parkes radio telescope in eastern Australia to search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. We have compiled a list of FAQs which explain what the project is about.

Who is the BPF group?

The Breakthrough Prizes were founded by Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Jack Ma and Cathy Zhang, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan. The prizes aim to celebrate scientists and generate excitement about the pursuit of science as a career.

What do they expect to achieve from the science program?

The program will deliver excellent science, and the funding provided by the BPF to CSIRO will support world leading science in other astronomy programs through contributing materially to the sustainable operation of the Parkes telescope for at least five more years.

How much of Parkes telescope time will be allocated?

BPF will be allocated a quarter of the science time available on the Parkes Telescope to search for signs of intelligent life. The BPF has engaged the facilities of CSIRO’s Parkes Radio Telescope to provide 25% of the available astronomy time from 1 July 2016 – 30 June 2021, on a full cost recovery basis. The aim is to establish a substantial new worldwide scientific program to search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI).

Who will lead the science program?

The program is being led by a number of the world’s most eminent astrophysicists and astronomers. Professor Matthew Bailes, ARC Laureate Fellow at the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, will be the Australian lead of the SETI observing team using the Parkes telescope. Professor Brian Schmidt, Breakthrough Prize and Nobel laureate, former member of the Australia Telescope Steering Committee and current chair of the board of Astronomy Australia Limited is a strong supporter of this proposal. The chair of the Australia Telescope Steering Committee, Dr Sue Barrell, is also strongly supportive.

How is the science program being funded?

The funding is entirely private. The BPF will pay the full cost of operation of the telescope for the fraction of time dedicated to this SETI program, which will further facilitate other publicly-funded science programs. The foundation is committing $100 million over a 10-year period for this global SETI initiative.

Why did BPF choose the Parkes Radio telescope?

The Parkes Radio Telescope is essential for the scientific integrity of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program. It is ideally located and perfectly positioned to provide the best and most powerful view of our galactic plane.

Is BPF using any other telescopes?

BPF is securing a substantial fraction of time on three of the most capable telescopes in the world, CSIRO’s Parkes Radio Telescope, the Greenbank Telescope and Lick Observatory in the US.

Why did CSIRO enter into this contract with BPF?

CSIRO will secure new revenue, cement a new partnership with one of the most powerful philanthropic and scientifically focussed organisations in the world.
The science program is directly aligned with CSIRO’s strategy to operate world class national facilities for the use of scientists, to ensure that those facilities are adequately and sustainably funded, and to facilitate the delivery of world leading science outcomes and impact.

How will this impact on the existing user base of the telescope?

The program will not displace any high priority science programs or the existing scientific user base of the Australia Telescope National Facility. The astronomy community will be provided with greater scientific capability through long-term financial support.

Has CSIRO ever been involved in anything like this before?

CSIRO has already played a leading role in the largest SETI search conducted to date – Project Phoenix – for which the Parkes telescope provided the critical capability to search the southern sky that cannot be accessed using telescopes in the northern hemisphere.
CSIRO has the only capability for radio astronomy in the southern hemisphere that can deliver the scientific goals of the proposed research.

What are the chances of successfully finding extra-terrestrial intelligence?

The likelihood of such a discovery is extremely low, but certainly not zero. The impact of such a discovery would be as high or higher than any other scientific result that can be contemplated.

Can the public get involved?

The public will have opportunities to get involved through crowd or citizen science programs including SETI@home .

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