Here’s the Bleak Reality that’s always confronted both scientists and layfolk dreaming of life on other worlds: of all the planets in the 92 billion-light-year-wide universe, only one is known to harbor biology. This fact has given succor to skeptics who argue that there’s no real point in throwing money and minds at a problem that can never be solved. Now, some very big money–$100 million to start–and minds are pressing ahead all the same. Their goal: to spend at least the next decade searching the sky not just for life but for intelligent life, scanning up to 1 million nearby stars and the 100 closest galaxies, each of which could be home to hundreds of billions more stars harboring who-knows-how-many habitable planets. E.T. can run, but if he’s making any noise to speak of, he can’t hide.
This new cosmic dragnet, dubbed Breakthrough Listen and unveiled on July 20 at a press conference in London, is being backed by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, who made his estimated $3.4 billion fortune as CEO of the Russian Internet portal Mail.ru and via DTS Group, his global investment firm, which placed winning bets on Facebook, Twitter, Alibaba and others. “I made some lucky investments,” says the 53-year-old with a diffidence that seems not in keeping with the Silicon Valley shot callers who have made space endeavors their off-hour pastime. (Unlike Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson, Milner sees his cosmic project as a purely scientific endeavor with no foreseeable commercial purpose.) Almost shy, Milner eschews the billionaire entourage and could pass unremarked upon in most office environments. But his animation shows when he talks about the universe–and the possibility that it is populated by organisms beyond those confined to Earth.
Milner’s initiative (the announcement date was chosen because it is the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing) is actually two initiatives. The first, Breakthrough Listen, will use most of the $100 million he’s making available to enlist some of the world’s most powerful radio telescopes to scan the cosmos for regular or repeating signals that could have no natural explanation–and therefore must be a beacon of some kind. The second, dubbed Breakthrough Message, is a contest that will offer a $1 million prize to the person or people who develop the best message earthlings can send back.
“We’re committed to bringing the Silicon Valley approach to the search for intelligent life in the universe,” said Milner at the press event, which took place at the Royal Society of London and included such science icons as Stephen Hawking and astronomer Geoff Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley, who is credited with discovering 70 of the first 100 known planets circling other stars. “Our approach will be open and taking advantage of the problem-solving power of social networks.”
Milner’s group is not the first collective attempt to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. That distinction belongs to SETI, which stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a California-based institute that opened in 1984. (In the 1997 sci-fi film Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s novel, Jodie Foster played a SETI scientist.) SETI was founded by University of California astronomer Frank Drake, creator of the namesake Drake equation. According to Drake, all you have to do to come up with the number of intelligent civilizations the Milky Way could harbor is throw a half-dozen variables–including the number of stars likely to be orbited by planets, the number that actually do have planets and the fraction of those with conditions that could support life–into the statistical blender and see what comes out. The equation has a lot of believers, and Drake himself estimates that up to 10,000 advanced civilizations may call our galaxy home. Sagan put the number at 1 million. His widow Ann Druyan, along with Hawking, Drake, Marcy and others, is part of Milner’s group.
What SETI has been doing for 30 years Breakthrough Listen hopes to do better, leasing time on the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and Australia’s Parkes Telescope to study 10 times as much sky with 50 times greater sensitivity at 100 times the processing speed SETI has been able to achieve. The effort will be assisted by the 9 million people around the world who already allow their home computers to be used as part of a massive distributed network processing SETI data (setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu).”The SETI infrastructure forms one of the largest supercomputers in the world,” Milner says. “Now they’ll have a lot more data to chew on. I’m sure there will be plenty of false positives, but it’s worth it.”
Milner has been headed this way his whole life. He was only 7 years old at the time of that other July 20, in 1969, and like many Soviet children back then, he had rocketry in his blood. He was named for Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, who orbited Earth a bit less than seven months before Milner was born. He was a physicist before he went into finance and technology, and has retained a deep love for science ever since. “We don’t celebrate intellectual achievement,” he says. “We celebrate athletic achievement. We celebrate artistic achievement. If you were to look at the 200 most famous people in the world, Stephen Hawking wouldn’t make it–or maybe he’d be 199.”
Milner has been working to change that, founding the Breakthrough Prize in 2012, which recognizes scientists with an Oscars-like ceremony. This year it will be broadcast live for the first time, on Fox. But the Breakthrough Initiative, he is betting, will touch people in a far more powerful way. Finding out whether we are alone in the universe would be, as he puts it, “cool and frightening” either way. (His personal bet? We’re not alone. “Otherwise, it would be such a waste of real estate,” he says.)
That view is by no means universal. Paul Davies, theoretical physicist at Arizona State University, is author of the 2010 book The Eerie Silence. “We know there is plenty of real estate,” he says, “plenty of places that could harbor life if it were brought there. But because we don’t know the mechanism whereby chemistry turned into biology, we don’t know how life began.”
If we do find life, the Breakthrough Message part of the project–the matter of what to transmit back–will become pressing. In the early 1970s, when the twin Pioneer spacecraft launched, they carried plaques engraved with information, including a map of Earth’s location and a line drawing of a naked man and woman, revealing us to be the small, soft, easy-to-eat creatures that we are.
That made some people nervous and still leaves many chary. Hawking, for example, has expressed doubts about the potential results of interstellar contact. Druyan is less worried. “It is my hope that the extraterrestrial civilization is not just more technically proficient,” she says, “but also more aware of the rarity and preciousness of life in the cosmos.”
Milner is determined to get the chance to figure it out. If he doesn’t find anything in the first decade of Breakthrough Listen’s run, he pledges to fund it for another–and another. “This thing can go on forever,” he says.
–With reporting by TARA JOHN/LONDON and MATT VELLA/NEW YORK
This appears in the August 03, 2015 issue of TIME.