Will SETI’s Unprecedented New Program Finally Find E.T.?

Stephen Hawking, Frank Drake and dozens of journalists gathered at the Royal Society in London last week to hear astronomers announce a ground-breaking new project to search for intelligent extraterrestrial life called “Breakthrough Listen.” They will be using two of the world’s largest radio telescopes (Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia) to listen for radio messages from intelligent alien species. Scientists have chosen to target the nearest million stars as well as the nearest 100 galaxies. This project will also monitor the Galactic plane for months at a time. This unprecedented effort is a collaboration between UC Berkeley and the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, and employs an international team of astronomers and data scientists, including Frank Drake – the father of SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence).

It is perhaps fitting that this new program will make use of the Green Bank Telescope (GBT), since Green Bank, West Virginia was the site of the first modern SETI experiment, called “Project Ozma.” In 1960, Frank Drake pointed the Tatel telescope at two nearby stars to search for the telltale signs of intelligent life; radio signals near 1.420 GHz. He listened on-and-off for four months, collecting 150 hours of data. He heard nothing.

In 1963, astronomers began the first ever continuous monitoring program using the Ohio State University Radio Observatory. Called the “Big Ear,” this observatory was used to monitor the sky continuously for 22 years. They heard nothing. The “Big Ear” was dismantled in 1998 to make room for the expansion of a nearby golf course.

In 2009, UC Berkeley launched the latest incarnation of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations (SERENDIP), which employs the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico. The idea is to effectively “piggy-back” on other planned radio observations and to use the same data that other astronomers are taking to study galaxies, but search those radio channels to find messages from ET.

The new program will be “a factor of 100 times more powerful than any current or past SETI program” says astronomer Geoff Marcy, a leading member of the team that will be organizing this search. He goes on to say that the 1.5 GHz bandwidth used for this program will be “like tuning your radio in your car, but instead of collecting the music from just one station, you collect the transmission from 1.5 billion stations.”

Finding funding for SETI projects has been a challenge ever since NASA pulled their support in 1993. Scientists have relied on large private donations for years. Between 2000 and 2007, SETI pulled in nearly $49 million to build the Allen Telescope Array in northern California. Such donations have been sufficient to support some of the smaller projects, but there hasn’t been a new, big-budget SETI endeavor in years. Many scientists are hopeful that the influx of funding from investor Yuri Milner for this program is only the beginning. Jill Tarter, former director of the Center for SETI Research and currently holding the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI at the SETI Institute believes that the time is right for the public to re-invest in SETI. In the past, astronomers have had an uphill battle convincing investors that the search for “little green men” is a legitimate, scientific endeavor, and worth significant attention. Some investors have even been laughed at for spending money on the search for intelligent alien life. Tarter hopes that the public attitude toward SETI is about to change: “The more people like Yuri openly and generously support this endeavor, the more you remove the possibility for being embarrassed or being ridiculed. The people who have funded [SETI] in the past, like Paul Allen, have been very bold. We need more Paul Allens. We need more Yuri Milners.”

Will we find intelligent life?

The question that everyone wants to know is this: How likely is it that this or any other SETI program will actually find evidence of intelligent alien life, either in our galaxy or another? As it turns out, that is a very difficult question to answer. Remember, this SETI program will be searching for intelligent life in the universe. Even if our galaxy is full of planets teeming with microbes, none of them will be sending out radio signals that we could intercept. What are the odds that another planet hosts an intelligent alien species?

Drake Equation (image credit: Colin A Houghton)
Drake Equation (image credit: Colin A Houghton)

To even begin to answer that question, we have to look at the Drake Equation. This is a simple and elegant equation, first proposed by Frank Drake, to calculate the number of intelligent alien species that should reside in our Milky Way galaxy based on a series of probabilities. While the first few factors of this equation are relatively well-known quantities, we have to make educated guesses about some of them.

  1. Number of Stars Born Each Year – 1.0

By studying the light emitted by young stars, astronomers are able to estimate that about 1 new star is born every year in the Milky Way galaxy, though some estimates have gone as high as 7 new stars per year.

  1. Fraction of Stars with Planets – 0.50

The latest studies using results from the Kepler Space Telescope indicate that nearly 100% of stars like the Sun have at least one planet. Many planetary systems we have observed so far appear to be packed with 3 or more planets! Even the most skeptical analysis of the available data leads us to believe that ~50% of all stars have at least one planet.


Kepler 62 contains multiple planets in the habitable zone of the host star. Image credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech
Kepler 62 contains multiple planets in the habitable zone of the host star. Image credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech


  1. Number of Habitable Planets per Planetary System – 0.2

This number is also motivated by the most recent Kepler data. It is difficult to assign a value to this parameter, since Sun-like stars have more habitable planets than, say, high-mass stars. However, conservative estimates say that there are 0.2 habitable planets around each star, since 1/5 stars host at least one planet in the habitable zone of its star.

  1. Fraction of Habitable Planets that Actually Develop Life – 1.0

From here on, our estimates are much more sketchy. For instance, how many planets that could host life actually do? We have tried to recreate the conditions of the early Earth in laboratories to try to replicate the development of life on our planet, and have been unsuccessful. We don’t entirely understand how life on Earth actually got its start. Geological evidence suggests that life started immediately after the Late Heavy Bombardment – a period of time when Earth was pummeled by comets and asteroids from the outer Solar System. As soon as it was safe for life to begin, it did.We believe that life may have existed on Mars billions of years ago, but have not found any direct evidence (fossils) yet. Such a discovery would suggest that life is created easily on any planet with the right conditions. Since the only habitable planet in our Solar System did develop life, we could estimate that this number is 100%.

  1. Fraction of Life Systems that Develop Intelligence – 0.50

Recall that the mission of SETI is to discover intelligent life on another planet. Human beings are the only species on our planet that could send and receive radio signals. So, how likely is it that life will evolve to become intelligent? There are some who would argue that intelligence is an inevitable consequence of evolution, but this is a highly debated issue. Since probability that a species will develop intelligence is somewhere between 0-100%, we will say that it is 50%.

  1. Fraction of Intelligent Species that Develop Interstellar Communication -0.10

There are different levels of intelligence, and not all intelligent species will be able to send radio signals across interstellar space. Chimpanzees share much of their DNA with humans, but they have not built their own space program. So we need to examine the fraction of intelligent species that will actually develop the ability to communicate with us across space. We might assume that any intelligent species would eventually seek out fellow residents of the Milky Way in an attempt to share knowledge. Conservatively, we might estimate that 10% of intelligent species will develop interstellar communication.

  1. Broadcasting Lifetime

Of course, it is not useful for us if there was an intelligent, broadcasting alien species in our Milky Way 2 billions years ago that has since died off. We want to communicate with ET here and now. Therefore, we have to take into consideration the length of time during which a civilization can broadcast signals into space. Our galaxy is only 10 billion years old, so even if life began on a planet at the moment our galaxy was formed, it could only have been broadcasting for 10 billion years. The first intentional broadcast from Earthlings into space with the intention of reaching alien species was in 1974 from the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico. Let’s assume (conservatively) that intelligent species are able to broadcast radio signals for 10,000 years.

When we plug these numbers into the Drake Equation, we find that there should be about 100 intelligent alien species currently capable of communicating with Earth in our Milky Way galaxy alone. Since there are approximately 150 billion galaxies in the visible universe alone, that means that there should be 15,000,000,000,000 intelligent alien species in our universe.

But what if these numbers are wrong? What if there’s no one out there? When do we pull the plug and stop spending money on a program that hasn’t had any success? Jill Tarter says that the most important results from SETI have nothing to do with extraterrestrial intelligence, but everything to do with our cosmic perspective. “SETI being discussed….SETI being pursued around the globe has this phenomenal ability to make us stop in our day-to-day lives and look at the big picture. And that picture is the ‘Pale Blue Dot.’ That’s us. We’re all the same to someone ‘out there’.” she said in an interview with Universe Today. She went on to explain that the most precious short-term benefit of SETI is the perspective it gives us, which can help us as a species to solve big problems here on Earth. “The ability to trivialize the differences among human beings is something that is incredibly important, because it will help us when we step up and try to solve the challenges we have in our future and when we try to manage our planet as a global civilization.”

With the new SETI initiative, astronomers are betting that there is someone out there, trying to communicate with us right now, and all we have to do is listen. As astronomer Geoff Marcy put it, “Every explorer has ventured out. They have crossed a river…or gone over a hill, not knowing what they would find. The most exquisite and fantastic types of exploration are journeys where you don’t know what you’re going to find. SETI is like that. We don’t know if we will find anything. But we are explorers, crossing a cosmic ocean, and these two radio telescopes are our ocean liner.”

39 Replies to “Will SETI’s Unprecedented New Program Finally Find E.T.?”

    1. I thought that strange too. But I think they had a reason, they did not want to bring that up … because it found: NOTHING, and that would bring this “new” idea ‘down’ ….

    2. seti@home is certainly an amazing project, but I don’t think of it as a separate SETI “program” – rather, an innovative way of analyzing SETI data. The Breakthrough Listen project will undoubtedly use similar citizen-science techniques to dig through the copious amounts of data it will produce.

      1. It is and I remember, yes I’m that old, when it came out. It was quite the hype and “CALLING ALL GEEKS” was answered and even some non-geeks answered the call.

  1. Nice article with some amazing numbers to think about. Reaching out, so far from our solar system seems like a leap when you realize just last month we finally got a good look at Pluto.

  2. So what exactly are they going to do differently then what they had/have been doing?

    Sure another scope is involved … but I’m going, if they have not heard anything as of yet …. well I guess time will tell. I just have a feeling it will be the same message that time has told us to this point:


    1. One of the interesting features of Breakthrough Listen is that it will be looking at over 1 billion radio “stations” at the same time. One of the things we don’t know about E.T. is if they would use the 1.42 GHz channel, or something slightly different. With this new program, we will be able to “catch” alien signals even if they aren’t right at 1.42 GHz.

      1. I get that …. I do, and yes here comes the “but…”

        What if they, ET-Aliens do NOT use RF as we know and understand it? Let me explain, I am an amateur sci-fi story teller. No none of my stuff is published, simply because it’s near impossible to get into the ‘field’. But that is another story.

        I look at our own history of “mass communication” if you will: Drums sounds, Smoke Messages, Flags and Color, Light SOS type messages and so on. Get the idea? Now in one of my story lines they use ‘capsules’ with data storage message in them. Another uses the Inferred – Ultraviolet Spectrum to send FTL messages in a “ZIP” type compression, where the other side (receiver) has the decoding technology to decompress the messages. Also Laser encoded messages that uses specialized gasses to speed them to FTL speeds. Much like we did here on earth a number of years back.

        Now IF I can come up, as have other Earth Based humans, my ideas are NOT original …. why do we think Aliens have to follow the RF methodology of sending messages??

        I think we’ve offered enough proof that RF is not viable in Space Related Communications: SRC. I think we are spinning our wheels in the proverbial mud. We are simply doing the same thing over again, in a bigger scale expecting a different result.

        As I tell a lot of my friends: You need to think outside the box. We are dealing with a 3D Space Environment and rules we establish on Earth are not the Galactic Rules, sorry they are not.

  3. Once we quit looking for Mommy and Daddy and finally realize we truly ARE ALONE, we will have to face OUR overwhelming responsibility of spreading life – before we’re snuffed in the inevitable cosmic bump and grind.

  4. I thought I heard that 1/3rd of the new money was going to increasing staffing doing the research and data processing, 1/3rd on new hardware to get the data. I guess the last third was going to be advancing the technology beyond what is available on new hardware??

  5. wondering why Aricebo is not in the mix of radio telescopes? Makes sense to use the most sensitive scope to detect extremely faint E.T. signals if at all they are broadcasting. A good reason why seti has failed is that the Allen ‘array’ inferometry telescope is under sensitive to maybe detect tv from kepler 462b.

  6. Pardon my cynicism, this would have better been placed in a comic: I can only imagine the con-job done on Russian tycoon Uri Milner to cough up the rubles. Then there is physicist Stephen Hawking – “We believe life arose spontaneously on earth…” Who is this “we”?
    Despite the gross lack of any viable theory for life’s origins through naturalistic processes, the stupendous failure to produce even the smallest amount of essential organic compounds under any intelligently designed conditions, the lack of explanation of the origins of the language of RNA/DNA, and the physics and math that refute naturalistic means for life’s ascendance, the naturalist religious faithful cling to methodological naturalism, equivocation, deceit, consensus and obfuscation.
    Humans are plagued to trivialize what they do not understand and a sucker IS born every minute: empirical confirmation is at hand. Blind faith is a wonderful thing, but can be very expensive. We need a formal name for this religion.

    1. Ignorance is a prerequisite for exploration. What is pointless is to study that which we already know. This effort might look silly in a future hindsight, or it might yield the most important discovery ever. And there are theories developing for the origin of life, actually, remarkable progress is being made considering the complex and small size of RNA’s (RNA’s working both as DNA and as enzymes before proteins is the strongest theory today).
      And origin of language? That’s easy. Of course it was the birds who learned humans talk! And since music is mathematical we got mathematical thinking at the same time, here it is explained 😀

      1. That, and looking at millions of stars will always yield valuable science even if we find no ETs (and I don’t think we will).

      2. I don’t think that any SETI data ever has had any (other) scientific use whatsoever. Radio astronomers are quite particular about what to look at when and how and more. So don’t count on any results except SETI results.

  7. “Since probability that a species will develop intelligence is somewhere between 0-100%, we will say that it is 50%.”

    If you want people to take SETI seriously you can’t say stuff like that.

  8. Yes, the numbers in the article are unrealistic.
    When Carl Sagan made this calculation he came up with a number between 2000 and 3000.
    This was before the hazards such as a gamma ray burster were known.
    If these hazards are included, the number of other civilizations that we can communicate with is about 0.28.
    It is a credit to the honesty of SETI that they announce that they have found nothing.
    The task is very difficult, and it is very probable that our technology is not advanced enough yet, because there may be forms of other signals that we have not discovered yet.

    1. On the other hand, if there ever was even one single spacefaring civilization in the Milky Way, they could’ve spread to other stars and become indestructible, eternal and spread to whereever they want to go. That’s Drake’s punchline, that they should be everywhere, or we have the most advanced technology in the entire galaxy since 50 years (1/250000000 of the time since Big Bang, we won the lottery!). MW is 100 kly diameter, at 1/1500 c (the planned top speed of Solar Probe Plus relative to the Sun next decade) one could travel from edge to opposing edge 9 times during the age of the universe. So the answer is most likely either zero or close to a billion, much less likely to be in between.

      The “colonies” need autonomy because of light travel time lag. 10 000’s of years of autonomy, longer than all of our written history. So they must be very diverse, like Pharao and Obama. Some secretive, some very extrovert and some very dangerous. Thus Hawkin’s (futile?) warning against active SETI.

  9. Yes, from Aristotle, we knew that the earth was flat.
    The Flat Earth Society will of course verify this.

  10. Fantastic news so far as it goes but if humanity can only be bothered to spend less than the price of a 747 on the search then does it deserve to succeed?

  11. I think humanity is under an agreed upon interstellar quarantine. Afterall, WHY would any intelligent extraterrestrial race want to deal with us? We are the reason for innumerable extinctions on this planet, why spread a plague? Quite frankly I’m rather surprised that ET hasn’t come down to fumigate the place… Then again, it’s only a matter of time before we do ourselves in anyway.

    1. Sorry I had to blink and re-read your post.

      This is an assumption based on a baseless hypothesis.

      POINT: We have zero proof that an ET even exists. Thus the SETI program,
      Then you add an “interstellar quarantine” … really? When did that happen, when you stop to think, based on current technology of the Voyager 1 & 2 … they are in or about to be in Interstellar Space. So there goes your “quarantine” …

      1. JJB, I think that you missed that the comment of Aqua4U is an ironic satire, and is not to be taken literally.
        However the point behind the comment of Aqua4U that any ET would not be positively impressed by watching news casts of people such as Stalin, Hitler and Mao Zedong has a great deal of validity.

      2. U know, I can accept that I missed the point and IF that was a “satire” …. then please accept my humble apology.

        I had just gotten out of another “dialog” – where a person was ranting on “We Did Not Go To the Moon” … to “Alien Cover-Up” … to I (Jj) am a “Disinformation Agent”, and such … and so, I’ll admit it’s getting harder to tell ‘satire’ from those who see a ‘reality’ that is fiction.

        I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been called a “Disinformation Agent” … I’m going on 61 and it started back when I was in my late 20’s … so as you can guess a “few” times. LOL…..

      3. When Earth has people like jjb it is no wonder the Aliens evade us and jjb we all know you are not a disinformation agent because you by nature are ( not sharp enough) you could however learn from Aqua4U who is as sharp as they come…

      4. Well, have a look at any biology, including any cell in your own body. It is all a struggle between special interests and haphazardly improvised compromises. It is pure fantasy that things could be organized in any other way. And even during WW2 when tens of millions worked full time with the task to kill as many humans as possible, global human population still grew.

      5. FarAwayLongAgo, I think you need to watch some Star Trek episodes.
        One of the main points of the series was that humans had evolved morally as well as technically, and could function together for the common good.

        The argument that you make is based on one of the fallacies of Secular Humanism.
        The opposite is true.
        The cells in the body do not fight each other, they work together for the whole body, although not perfectly, as we are not God.
        The invading viruses, bacteria, parasites, fungus, and other diseases are examples of primitive life forms.
        WW2 does not support your argument. During war, the birth rate rises, but during prosperity the population shrinks.
        Look at the demographics of Japan and Germany, and please note that the highest birth rate in the world is in Gaza.

  12. “Will SETI’s Unprecedented New Program Finally Find E.T.?”

    sorry to be a downer, but not likely. that’s no reason to give up though.

    1. Oh, I agree DO NOT GIVE UP …. exploration of space is an adventure in great and small discoveries ….. We will not find ET-Aliens, that communicate on an intelligent level … but we could find great and small things that would make it worth the while.

      * Maybe new signals for new stars, like the Pulsar Stars and such.
      * Maybe find subtle signals for various type exo-planets that might help us better define their make up.

      You just never know what we will find by looking … you just never know.

      1. In that case jjb I cant wait to receive a signal from Frank Sinatra singing fly me to the Moon and let me live among the Stars…you just never know. 

      2. Likely there is a Radio Signal of that song out there, that should be some what easy to find with all this technology. 😉

        Or … I’ll see if I can send you an MP3 of it ….

  13. It is interesting that Seth Shostak was not invited to the one hundred million dollar SETI party. Did he get hit by a bus or something?

  14. wow the chinese scope is 5 times sensitive over ariciebo. Interesting times ahead. Dunno why nobody reported that one. Must be the politics. I for one dont care if the apes are doing SETI with their scopes. All we need is the damn first signal.

  15. Let me ‘splain this to you, SETI. We do not control any possible contact situation with an advanced alien intelligence. They do. THEY will initiate contact when and if they ever want to do so. We are NEVER going to find any intelligent life until that life wants to be found. Your fantasy that you expect to have contact with ET’s in your lifetimes is just that. Pure fantasy. There is NO SCIENTIFIC BASIS to believe humanity will EVER have contact with some alien species. I want to find aliens, of course, but the likelihood of that happening any time soon is extremely small.

    1. Yeah, don’t call us, we’ll call you. If we care. And please stop contaminating our radio environment with your naive medieval messages, or we’ll send a comet your way to end your transmissions once and for all. Actually, we are impatient so it will arrive shortly after this message, Goodbye!

      I’m sorry, but I do doubt your ability to estimate the likelihood of us contacting aliens, Mr. jabbadonut.

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