Stephen Hawking at a 2016 press conference to discuss the Breakthrough Listen initiative. Stephen Hawking at a 2016 press conference to discuss the Breakthrough Listen initiative. Stephen Hawking at a 2016 press conference to discuss the Breakthrough Listen initiative. (Photo: Bryan Bedder / Getty Images)

Stephen Hawking's search for aliens just got a major boost

One of the physicist's final projects is now one step closer to finding extraterrestrial life.

Before he passed away in March (on Albert Einstein's birthday, no less), Stephen Hawking was working on finding aliens. The legendary physicist was on the board of Breakthrough Listen initiative, a massive $100 million project that is searching for evidence of technological life in the universe.

That project got a major boost this week when they announced they would expand their efforts thanks to a "multi-beam" receiver on a telescope in Australia. The group has previously tried to listen for aliens using the Green Bank Telescope in the mountains of West Virginia, the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope and the world's largest land-based movable structure.

The prior receivers used by the group of scientists only observed a single point on the sky at a time, and were used to perform a detailed search of stars near the sun for evidence of extraterrestrial life. In contrast, the multibeam receiver has 13 beams, enabling a fast survey of large areas of the sky, covering a much larger area. In addition to the plane of the Milky Way, observations also cover a region around the Galactic Center, capturing data on one of the densest neighborhoods in the galaxy. This region contains a supermassive black hole, surrounded by tens of millions of stars within just a few light years' distance of the center.

Stephen Hawking being introduced by his daughter Lucy Hawking at the lecture the physicist gave for NASA's 50th anniversary. Stephen Hawking being introduced by his daughter Lucy Hawking at the lecture the physicist gave to honor NASA's 50th anniversary. (Photo: Wikimedia)

"With these new capabilities," said Danny Price, a scientist with Breakthrough Listen project at UC Berkeley, "we are scanning our galaxy in unprecedented detail. By trawling through these huge datasets for signatures of technological civilizations, we hope to uncover evidence that our planet, among the hundreds of billions in our galaxy, is not the only one where intelligent life has arisen."

Avi Loeb, the chair of Harvard's astronomy department, is on the advisory committee for the project. "We should search for both primitive and intelligent forms of life without prejudice, since the corresponding methods span different signals and search volumes," said Loeb, an Israel-born theoretical physicist who graduated from Jerusalem's Hebrew University. "The expansion of Breakthrough Listen will reinvigorate our ability to detect radio signals from alien civilizations in case they use it for communication or propulsion. We already know about unusual signals, Fast Radio Bursts, whose origin is enigmatic. It would be helpful to collect more detailed data in order to unravel their origin, whether all of them are of natural origin or some are of artificial origin."

Time magazine selected Loeb as one of the 25 most influential people in space. Time magazine selected Dr. Loeb as one of the 25 most influential people in space. (Photo: Kris Snibbe / Harvard Gazette)

The search for alien life may sound quirky to the average observer, but Loeb and his team are taking a long-tail view of our future. Along with many scientists, Loeb knows that humans' time on Earth is finite. The sun will eventually boil the oceans to the point where we'll have to find a new home. Or there could be a catastrophic asteroid. It won't happen tomorrow, or even in the next century. But he knows it will happen eventually. Habitable planets just outside our solar system have already been discovered. Scientists are now seeking how to get us there. "We just need to think about the big picture and, you know, have a plan B."

Loeb's quest to find aliens is the subject of the debut episode of the new "Our Friend from Israel" podcast, which will be launching on Tuesday, May 15. (Subscribe now to be alerted when the episode arrives.) "My young daughter asked me to bring the alien home if we ever find it," Loeb revealed on the show. "My wife, on the other hand, said that if they ever offer me a ride on their spacecraft, I should make sure that I leave the car keys with her and that they don't ruin the lawn in the backyard when they liftoff."

You can catch a sneak peek here:

For the time being, it appears that Hawking's work will continue even after his passing. In addition to the new receiver being used for the Breakthrough Listen project, a paper by Hawking was just published posthumously. Called "A Smooth Exit from Eternal Inflation," Hawking's final paper attempted to explain that the universe is much simpler and finite than current big bang theories state.

"We are not down to a single, unique universe, but our findings imply a significant reduction of the multiverse, to a much smaller range of possible universes," Hawking said.

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Stephen Hawking's search for aliens just got a major boost
One of the physicist's final projects is now one step closer to finding extraterrestrial life.