UK astronomers to co-ordinate their search for alien signals

Jodrell Bank The scientists believe it is time UK effort was properly co-ordinated

British scientists are to make a concerted effort to look for alien life among the stars.

Academics from 11 institutions have set up a network to co-ordinate their Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (Seti).

The English Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, will act as patron.

The group is asking funding agencies for a small - about £1m a year - sum of money to support listening time on radio telescopes and for data analysis.

It would also help pay for research that considered new ways to try to find aliens.

Currently, most Seti work is done in the US and is funded largely through private donation.

UK Seti Research Network (UKSRN) co-ordinator Alan Penny said there was important expertise in Britain keen to play its part.

"If we had one part in 200 - half a percent of the money that goes into astronomy at the moment - we could make an amazing difference. We would become comparable with the American effort," the University of St Andrews researcher told BBC News.

"I don't know whether [aliens] are out there, but I'm desperate to find out. It's quite possible that we're alone in the Universe. And think about the implications of that: if we're alone in the Universe then the whole purpose in the Universe is in us. If we're not alone, that's interesting in a very different way."

The UKSRN held its first get-together at this week's National Astronomy Meeting.

British researchers and facilities have had occasional involvement in Seti projects down the years.

The most significant was the use in 1998-2003 of Jodrell bank, and its 76m Lovell radio telescope, in Project Phoenix. This was a search for signals from about 1,000 nearby stars. Organised - and paid for - by the Seti Institute in California, it ultimately found nothing.

Jodrell has since been updated, linking it via fibre optics into a 217km-long array with six other telescopes across England. Known as eMerlin, this system would be a far more powerful tool to scan the skies for alien transmissions.

And Jodrell's Tim O'Brien said Seti work could be done quite easily without disturbing mainstream science on the array.

"You could do serendipitous searches. So if the telescopes were studying quasars, for example, we could piggy-back off that and analyse the data to look for a different type of signal - not the natural astrophysical signal that the quasar astronomer was interested in, but something in the noise that one might imagine could be associated with aliens. This approach would get you Seti research almost for free," the Jodrell associate director explained.

"There are billions of planets out there. It would be remiss of us not to at least have half an ear open to any signals that might be being sent to us."

Tim O'Brien gives a tour of the 'alien signal' control centre

In addition to eMerlin, the UK is also heavily involved in Lofar - a European Low Frequency Array that incorporates new digital techniques to survey wide areas of the sky all at once.

And Jodrell itself is the management HQ for the forthcoming Square Kilometre Array, a giant next-generation radio observatory to be built in South Africa and Australia. It will have incredible power, not only to screen out interference from TV and phone signals here on Earth, but to resolve very faint signals at vast distances. It has been said the SKA could detect an airport radar on an alien world 50 light-years away.

One attraction of Seti is the great potential for "citizen science" involvement.

The Seti@Home screensaver has proved to be a big hit with the public, using downtime on home and business PCs to analyse radio telescope data for alien signals. The UK has a strong history in this area also with projects such as Galaxy Zoo, which sees citizen scientists help professional astronomers sift and classify the colossal numbers of images we now have of galaxy structures.

Alan Penny: "It would be complete wimpishness not to try"

Sir Martin said there was huge public interest in the Seti question and some modest state funding for the area would probably get wide support.

"I'd put it this way: if you were to ask all the people coming out of a science fiction movie whether they'd be happy if some small fraction of the tax revenues from that movie were hypothecated to try to determine if any of what they'd just seen was for real, I'm sure most would say 'yes'," he told BBC News.

The issue is whether UK astronomy, currently operating under very tight fiscal constraints, can afford any spare cash for a field of endeavour that has completely unknown outcomes.

Sheffield University's Paul Crowther doubted the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the main funders of UK astronomy, would be able to support UKSRN.

"Continued flat-cash science budget awards are constantly eroding STFC's buying powers, causing the UK to withdraw from existing productive facilities such as the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope.

"[British astronomy] faces the prospect of a reduced volume of research grants, and participation in future high-impact facilities [eg the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope] is threatened. I would be shocked if STFC's advisory panels rated the support of UKSRN higher than such scientifically compelling competition."

Dr Penny argued Seti could make a strong case, and that his group would try to get research council backing.

"The human race wants to explore, wants to find things out, and if we stop trying we're on the road to decay," he said.

Jonathan Amos Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Considering the sheer quantity of planets in the universe that could sustain life, I recognize that it is quite possible that there are some out there that support intelligent life forms. I maintain that, if these life forms are truly intelligent, they will have the sense to remain undetected by us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    The SETI is a fascinating and worthwhile activity in my view. Professor Carl Sagan suspected that the Universe would be "teeming with life." What do we do? Not bother looking? I hope they get the funding. There are so many things which are a waste of time and money going on. If humans give up space related research it's time to put the lights out before we bow out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Can't see the point of re-inventing the wheel - why can't they work with SETI?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Humans have the ability to push the boundaries, so they will, just because they are there to be pushed. No other reason required. No difference whether it is out into universal space or in to sub-quark space. The argument is the same for the LHC. Cash doesn't come into it, nor does starving babies. That's the way we are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    It is a greater shame that we have a negative view on research than on some of our other “pastimes”. If amongst all the potential billions of habitable planets there is a life form that has the ability to announce its self, then we should endeavour to find it. You never know, the contact might be beneficial and after all some of the things we humans do certainly are not !

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Has nobody figured this out yet? Look, they will only land when we humans can all get on, white,yellow,black,brown,red ect. When we can, they will help us develope further. Our minds are set for something more than slavery. Having someone earn 50k a day whilst others earn 1$ is not progress. If we can't get on with beings that look like us, why would they want to land and be friends. Deal with it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    SETI is a waste of money. It appeals somewhat to the masses, but ultimately will yield nothing (as it has done for years). The UK should be investing in projects in which the UK has a REAL and sustainable world lead. The decision to withdraw from UKIRT and JCMT is utterly shocking when both telescope produce such unique science. STFC need to re-visit their priorities in a modern era.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Superb! Full credit - excellent science. Best of luck.

    As to the knuckle draggers who whine on about such efforts being a 'waste of money' - erm, no.

    We spend more on financing perfumes than we do Astronomical science. These folk are also clearly ignorant of the many advances in *their* lives due to space science.

    Problems on Earth? Yes. But you don't cut your nose off to spite your face.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Oh so GCHQ want to snoop on the aliens phone calls now too

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.


  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Aliens recently were shocked to find out their conversations had been bugged by Earth. "This is outrageous" said a spokesman for extra-terrestrial life in the Milky Way. "And the worse thing is Earth's claim it was all done to protect us from terrorism."

    While the results of the bugging are believed to have been negligible, SETI has managed to develop some nice screen-savers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Sure keep listening.

    Will it be AM, FM, single sideband (SSB) or even good ol' Morse code.... might even be in English too, but what frequency?

    Will it be valves or transistors in their transmitters? Might as well get a fog horn and start bellowing down it.

    To be honest I have my doubts they'll hear ET, we humans only know how to use our brain... what about other senses we may not know about?

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    @ 5. I wondered how long it would be before someone would start on the "let's stop wasting money" comments. Give us some figures? Here's a starter for ten just to get you thinking. Meaningful training, say a 10 week course (not just elastoplast statistical training). £500 a day cost? A sum total of 40 people (no guarantee of a job). Give me the science instead please.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Would intelligence aliens necessarily be biological? Very doubtful. Humans are still in charge here on Earth, but only just. Before too long computers could take over and make humans redundant (and extinct). So perhaps SETI should be looking for artificial rather than biological “life”.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    If there were any extratarrestrial biological entities out there, might they not want to avoid advertising the fact they were out there

    Just because WE can't help ourselves by shouting "look at me" into the cosmos doesn't mean every other intelligent race would be so vain

    Still. Good luck, and hope you find something more than just static

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Given that there are billions of potentially inhabitable planets in our galaxy alone, the problem might well be not too few signals to find, but too many, which just add together to contribute to cosmic white noise.

    A means of looking for an anomaly in the intelligence-made radio frequency spectrum is needed, but as all the different natural sources are not known, this may be tricky.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The assumption is that ET wants to simply have a cosy chinwag - who says they won't just see us as lunch?

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I and my whole office would like to know if there's anything out there. We have been brought up with the expectation of alien life out there. Someone has to cough up the money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I wonder if aliens overfill their kettles?

    But more seriously for a 'small amount of money' - a million quid!! We really do have to wake up and realise that we have to stop squandering all these million pounds and focus on what will make our lives better on earth. A million quid buys a lot of training for people that are unemployed!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    If you want to talk over long distances, you'll want really efficient encoding, so that to lesser civilisations, your message will sound like white noise. If they're not trying to attract our attention, we'll never notice them; on the other hand, if they were trying to attract our attention, we'd have noticed them long ago.


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