If its first quarter is anything to go by, 2016 may be shaping up historically as the 1491 of space discovery. The month preceding Valentine’s Day alone provided what would once have been a year’s worth of cosmic news!Blue Origin, the aerospace company owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, took one giant leap toward a new Age of Discovery by relaunching and landing a rocket that had already made a round-trip journey through the stratosphere – a revolutionary moment in private space exploration. A pair of researchers kicked off a frenzied planet hunt by demonstrating that a massive, heretofore undetected planet could be lurking on the outer edge of our solar system. Cosmologist Stephen Hawking suggested that unforeseen effects of rapid scientific progress might, paradoxically, cause the extinction of life on Earth in the next thousand years or so, adding, “By that time, we should have spread out into space, and to other stars, so a disaster on Earth would not mean the end of the human race.” And scientists announced they’d detected gravitational waves, evidence of a billion-year-old collision between black holes, thus confirming the final and most obscure principle of Einstein’s theory of relativity – and opening a window that may soon offer a glimpse of the universe’s very creation.
Meanwhile, in a restricted swath of Appalachia where cell service and Wi-Fi are prohibited to minimize radio interference, a team of astrophysicists and programmers from UC-Berkeley inaugurated a new interstellar exploration at the Robert C. Byrd telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia. Titled Breakthrough Listen, this 10-year, $100 million project will comprise what Andrew Siemion, director of Berkeley’s SETI Research Center, called “the most sensitive, comprehensive and advanced search for advanced intelligent life on other worlds ever performed.” (SETI stands for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.) The goal is to detect some evidence of distant technology, such as radio communication or a concentrated burst of energy. If it succeeds, Breakthrough Listen will answer an existential and philosophical question that humankind has pondered for millennia: Are we alone in the universe?