Three of the world’s richest and most intelligent men are hoping to be the first to find alien life.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner and physicist Stephen Hawking have revealed exclusively to MailOnline that they will be listening to signals from ‘Earth 2.0’.
Officially named Proxima b, the rocky planet is believed to have the right conditions to harbour life and is just four light years from Earth.
The trio are funding an ambitious $100 million (£76 million) project known as ‘Breakthrough Listen’, which will use the world’s most powerful telescopes to listen to messages from ET.
Last month, astronomers found clear evidence that our nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is the sun to another Earth-like world.
‘It came only a few months after Stephen Hawking and I, with Mark Zuckerberg’s support, launched our Breakthrough Starshot project, which aims to launch a tiny spacecraft to Alpha Centauri within a generation,’ Milner told MailOnline.
‘At the time, we hoped there was a planet in the Centauri system, but we didn’t know.
‘Now we have a definite target. That makes the mission feel more tangible.’
Thousands of exoplanets have been discovered before, but unlike the others, scientists say Proxima b is within our reach.
While four light years is a long way – more than 25 trillion miles – future generations of super-fast spacecraft could conceivably travel to the planet within the next few decades.
Much further in the future the planet may even be colonised by space travellers from Earth.
Early next month, the Breakthrough Listen team will look for radio emissions that differ from the natural background noise using the Parkes Observatory in Australia.
The same observatory was used to receive live televised pictures of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.
‘It is difficult to predict how long the search will take, but we know that all the conditions necessary for life to arise on Earth are ubiquitous in the universe,’ Andrew Siemion, Director of Berkeley SETI (Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Research Center told MailOnline.
The team hopes to avoid a repeat of the false ‘alien’ signals that were picked up by the RATAN-600 radio telescope in Zelenchukskaya, Russia – but doing so may be tricky.
Proxima b is just four light years from Earth – close enough to be reached by future space missions. Pictured is an artist’s impression of the surface of the planet, looking out onto its star and the double star Alpha Centauri
‘Terrestrial technology is a challenging problem,’ said Siemion.
‘Our notion of what types of emission are produced by technology is informed by our own technology…our own technology presents a significant interfering background.’
It comes as one of the backers of the project, Professor Hawking, says we should be wary of contacting aliens if we find them.
‘Gazing at the stars I always imagined there was someone up there looking back’, Hawking says during a film, titled ‘Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places’.
‘As I grow older I am more convinced than ever that we are not alone.’
However, if we were to meet an advanced civilisation, Hawking says it could be similar to when the Native Americans first encountered Christopher Columbus – and ‘that didn’t turn out so well’.
On October 4, the Breakthrough Listen team will use the Parkes Observatory in Australia to look for radio emission that differs from the natural background noise
He says it’s better for us to find them before they find us.
Milner says this should stop us from looking.
‘I’ve always been fascinated by the existential questions of life and the universe,’ he said.
‘It is fundamental to understanding our place in the big scheme of things. You can’t know who you are without having others to compare yourself to.’
WHAT MAKES PROXIMA B UNIQUE?
Distance: This is the closest Earth-like planet we could ever find.
Orbiting our nearest star, the planet is only four light years away.
Missions to send spacecraft to the planet to look for signs of life are already being planned, and could happen within decades.
Composition: The planet is rocky and a similar size to Earth.
Temperature: It lies in the ‘habitable zone’ of its star, which means there could be liquid water on its surface – a key ingredient for alien life.
The temperature on the surface of the planet could be between -90° and 30° Celsius (-130 and 86 Fahrenheit).
Atmosphere: If Proxima b has an atmosphere, the simple ingredients – water, carbon dioxide, and rock – that are needed for the formation of biochemical cycles that we call life, could all be present and interacting on the planet’s surface.
‘They could well be right. But they could also be wrong.
‘Either way the answer would be incredible. We humans are curious beings who like to know the truth. So, why not look?’
The Breakthrough Listen team has already collected data on other star systems using the Green Bank Radio Telescope in West Virginia and Lick Observatory’s Automated Planet Finder in California.
The Milky Way (artist’s impression shown top) is around 100,000 light years across. Earth and Proxima b are only 4 light years apart (inset), making them galactic neighbours. Scientists hope we can reach the planet in the next few decades
Studies carried out so far by the project include most of the stars within 16 light years of Earth.
Breakthrough Listen can collect data over a 10-year period from a network of the world’s most powerful radio and optical telescopes to yield vast, full-sky signal monitoring.
Search capacity is 50 times more sensitive, cover 10 times more of the sky, 5 times more of the radio spectrum, and at speeds 100 times faster.
What would Milner do if we did hear signals from an alien civilisation?
‘I will take a bottle of champagne out of the fridge and start thinking about the message back,’ he says.