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 43.

    When we have destroyed life on this planet, they will come again and take our DNA and zap it up a bit and deploy us around the globe...they will return in future time and see if we have evolved or still the same bunch. Imagine we reach another planet and they worship zolga, and we don't? war instantly lol. We need to get over ourselves before we will find anything. Open your mind...

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Life here on Earth has evolved by survival of the fittest to produce a dominant species (us). And perhaps life in the cosmos has done the same. Maybe we should think twice before we broadcast our existence, To see what might lie in store just look how the least advanced tribes throughout the world have faired after they have encountered more advanced humans.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Plenty of illegal aliens in this country and you pay a million to find more lol.

    All civilisations existing now and previous described how visitors came here, be it gods,angels,star brothers ect. Some kept to the truth, others turned it into a religion. Of course something is out there, don't expect them to land on this planet full of know it all's-nothing to teach us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    "Has nobody figured this out yet? Look, they will only land when we humans can all get on, white,yellow,black,brown,red etc."
    It's a weird kind of inverted snobbery that assumes alien species will be more advanced and morally superior to us; sure, many may be, but why the assumption? We're all players on the same stage; they'll have their own differing and colourful issues as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    In 4,500 million years, we've been on this planet for about 6-8 million.
    We've only been capable of receiving and sending messages into space for less than 100 years. Conclusion? We may have missed them, or we may be too early. Either way it's a long shot even if there is or was life out there. Personally, I believe we are alone. A waste of money but a good job if you can get it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Need to supplement GCHQ's surveillance huh.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Radio for just over 100 years. Lasers for far less. What will we have next? What should we be listening for? Far better to spend money looking at ways to determine planet atmospheric makeup and go from there. Ie locate an oxygen rich atmosphere and zoom in. Big question to answer first is whether life exists elsewhere. Then consider intelligent life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    We're just talking monkeys on an organic spaceship floating through the universe.

    Statistically there are more species out there doing the same thing. We just happen to call them "aliens". Perhaps their prehensility is a little more evolved along with what we call their grey matter.

    We're still finding new species on Earth so there will be something out there. It's a big place.

    Good luck!

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    well if they happy to train I be happy to be there and work :) it is time we worked harder looking for a signal from anther type of life forum is great and more money needs to go into this type of projects and we need seti Frequencies in space like a booster platform

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Guess what there are going to find. This is waste of time and money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    It only makes sense to search for intelligent extraterrestrial life. Unless of course they are carnivores and like human flesh, then it might be wise to stay low.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    There is an easy way to get the data analysed. Send it through the internet from the UK to US and both GCHQ and CIA will analyse it for free. The only problem is finding the results !

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    They won't be content until they find something out there and get onto Facebook! LOL....

    But a worthy research effort for a difficult subject!

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Any number of churches should donate into this program. They have the money stashed away and comparisons could be drawn with a search for god.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    £1m to fund a year of SETI a waste of money? Join the 21st Century, please! That is the monthly pay of a footballer. The Wow! signal would seem as nothing compared to the first proof of other intelligent life. The one thing that bothers me is this: what if everyone listens and no-one speaks? Maybe we should be broadcasting or, better, laser-signalling to every planet we see in a Goldilocks Zone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    The idea that they can analyze data already being collected is a great one. Why is this not done already? Is the data the property of whoever paid for the telescope time to collect it?? Basic raw data should be freely available to anyone who wants it (or a small fee to allow for cost of the equipment and time).

    Some people laugh at the idea of "aliens", but they forget we are here, so...

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Seti assumes life develops intelligence that eventually comunicates by electro magnetic signals but of all the life on this earth only one form,us, has.
    All the other forms only care about the next meal and procreating.
    As things are going we wont be around much longer so I cant see any point with looking for signals from light years past.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    What a waste if money, why replicate what they do in California what is not producing results. Tell me - can any physicist actually tell me what is gravity at the level if a force? Not the observed effects? NO. So concentrate your efforts in basic problems before looking to the stars.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    £1m is not very much money for something interesting and maybe very worthwhile like this.

    In fact it's one sixth the cost of the pay rise of £10,000 pa that MPs are asking for.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Nice idea. But why not save UKIRT from being scrapped and use that to search for NEOs?


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