“Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps, intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean,” Stephen Hawking said at Monday’s Breakthrough Initiative’s press conference, which was held to announce a $100 million venture geared toward finding extraterrestrial life, the most ambitious search of its kind to date. Over the course of the next 10 years, the project will use the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia — and the CSIRO Parkes Radio Telescope in New South Wales, Australia — to survey the closest one million stars; the scope is 10 times larger than any previous project.
All the data from the two telescopes will be available to the public and hopefully will lead to further analysis and ventures into space exploration, but the main goal here is finding life outside of our own. NASA recently predicted that we’ll find extraterrestrial life within the next decade, and this project is likely one of the foremost studies into finding creatures in space.
“This new project is a much bigger, much more grand attempt at this where a far, vastly large number of stars are going to be looked at and in much more depth to try to see if any signs of life can be found,” the Green Bank Telescope’s site director, Dr. Karen O’Neil, told Uproxx in an interview. “As far as I know, this will be by far the deepest and most expensive search ever made for extraterrestrial life.”
How Close Have We Come Before?
We’ve actually been close to finding life outside of our planet before. In 1976, NASA Viking Landers analyzed the soil on the surface of Mars. The mission was initially thought to have found no evidence of life, but that’s been disputed in the years since. Some traces of chlorohydrocarbon — an organic compound — were found in the soil samples taken from the planet, but they were dismissed as contaminants. What wasn’t known to the scientists studying the samples at the time was the strong presence of perchlorate, a martian salt; perchlorates have oxidizing properties, and they were not detected in the Viking mission.
In 2008, the Phoenix lander discovered perchlorates in the Martian soil, and in light of the discovery, scientists combined soil containing organic material from the Atacama Desert in Chile — known as the closest thing to Mars we have on Earth — with perchlorate and heated the sample. What resulted were the same kind of chlorohydrocarbons found on Mars in 1976. The study confirmed the building blocks of life were present, but it did not prove that life can or has prospered on the planet.
In 1996, David McKay — a lead researcher for NASA — published a paper in the Science journal claiming that evidence pointing to fossilized microbial life was found in a Mars meteorite that was discovered in Antarctica 10 years earlier. At the time, the finding was significant enough to warrant then-President Bill Clinton to issue a statement about it. Since then, the findings have been put into question by other studies and the result is the same: We still have yet to find “hard” evidence.