Back in 2015, Stephen Hawking and Yuri Milner launched Breakthrough Listen, a $100 million astronomical project that set a fire under the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Now, thanks to a collaboration with the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), the search will grow 1,000-fold, scanning over a million stars in as few as two years.
You only need to read Yuri Milner’s Giving Pledge letter, or his book Eureka Manifesto, to understand the billionaire tech investor’s passion for science and science philanthropy. Here, we’ll provide an overview of Yuri Milner’s cosmic ideas, his mission in founding the Breakthrough Initiatives, and Listen to’s a new collaboration with the MeerKAT Observatory.
In 2012, Yuri Milner and his wife Julia joined Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates’ Giving Pledge campaign. The Giving Pledge encourages wealthy individuals to pledge a majority of their wealth to philanthropy. Inspired by Yuri Milner’s lifelong fascination with science, the Milners set their varied philanthropic projects in this arena.
To fulfill their Giving Pledge commitment, the couple established the Breakthrough Foundation. This organization powers various projects that champion science and scientists, including:
- The Breakthrough Prize.
- The Breakthrough Junior Challenge.
- The Breakthrough Initiatives.
The Breakthrough Initiatives are a series of programs that focus on different aspects of life in the cosmos. Aside from Listen, the Breakthrough Initiatives include:
- Starshot — an engineering program working on the design for a viable interstellar space probe.
- Watch — a research program identifying planets that could host alien life.
- Message — a contest that asks public members to craft a message from humanity to an alien civilization.
- Discuss — an academic conference for space science experts.
While the Breakthrough Initiatives represent one aspect of the Milners’ Giving Pledge, the programs also contribute to a larger mission. Yuri Milner outlines this mission in his short book Eureka Manifesto.
Published in 2021 and available to read online for free, Eureka Manifesto calls on humanity to recognize the significance of our place in the story of the cosmos. Our species needs a common goal that looks beyond Earth and unites us.
In December 2022, Breakthrough Listen announced a new partnership with the MeerKAT observatory, one of the world’s largest telescopes, located in South Africa. MeerKAT consists of 64 antennas, or dishes, which allow the telescope to provide an unprecedented view of the sky.
“I am very excited to be able to search technosignatures using one of the most sensitive telescopes in the world,” says Dr. Cherry Ng, Breakthrough Listen’s project scientist for MeerKAT. “MeerKAT will provide us with the ability to detect a transmitter akin to Earth’s brightest radio beacons out to a distance of 250 light-years.”
“MeerKAT has a remarkable combination of sensitivity and survey speed, which makes it a wonderful telescope for SETI,” adds Dr. Fernando Camilo, SARAO’s chief scientist.
As a result of this collaboration, Listen will be able to target over one million new stars, collecting data 24 hours a day, seven days a week, twoor 2 years. The program hopes to detect technosignatures, potential evidence of an intelligent alien civilization.