The renowned cosmologist and best-selling author has lent his personal support to the $100 million (£64m) decade-long project launched by a Russian silicon valley billionaire.
Other big-name scientists, including the Astronomer Royal Lord Rees, are also involved in the endeavour which dwarfs previous underfunded and piecemeal attempts to eavesdrop on alien civilisations.
Yuri Milner, who made his fortune through investments in technology companies, said the Breakthrough Listen project he is funding will use three of the world’s most powerful telescopes and gather more information in one day than previous Seti (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) attempts managed in a year.
Speaking through his trademark voice synthesiser at yesterday’s launch event at the Royal Society’s headquarters in London, Prof Hawking said: “To understand the universe you must know about atoms.
“About the forces that bind them, the contours of space and time. The birth and death of stars, the dance of galaxies, the secrets of black holes.
“But that is not enough.
“These ideas cannot explain everything. They can explain the light of stars, but not the lights that shine from Planet Earth.
“To understand these lights you must know about life, about minds. We believe life arose spontaneously on Earth so in an infinite universe there must be other occurrences of life. Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps, intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours.
“Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos, unseen beacons announcing that here on our rock, the universe discovered its existence?
“Either way, there is no bigger question. It is time to commit to finding the answer – to search for life beyond Earth.”
Listen, the first of two Breakthrough Initiatives, will harness both state-of-the-art analytical software and the combined power of nine million personal computers around the world via a “citizens’ science” network already used by Seti researchers.
Cutting-edge computing technology being developed for the project will make it possible to sift billions of radio frequencies at once, looking for the telltale signs of an intelligent signal.
The search will take in a million nearby star systems, the centre of our Milky Way galaxy, and even reach out across unimaginable distances to 100 other galaxies.
Lord Rees, who will chair the project’s advisory committee, said: “It’s a huge gamble of course, but the pay-off will be so colossal . . . that the investment is well worth while.
“The chances of finding life have been raised a billion-fold when you realise that habitable planets are not rare but there are billions of them.”