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 343.

    As far as this project finding life, the odds are definitely not good. A while ago I was working on a sci-fi epic and knowing the odds based on real science, did this extrapolation. -
    Humans have an interstellar empire 1000 light years in diameter, in this space there are on the order of 10 million stars. Humans have ....

  • rate this

    Comment number 342.

    This is good news. The UK Space program (if there is one) is quiet, too quiet as are the majority of nations who aren't doing enough. Its good private entities are aiming for bigger plans, MarsOne's project is very interesting and if they can pull it off, well more power to them. Men on Mars before 2030, this is what the world needs. 43 years since we touched down on the Moon for the first time!

  • rate this

    Comment number 341.

    Improbable but not impossible ... those are the odds. I think the $1m could be spent on far more deserving astronomical research. This at a time of financial crisis?

  • rate this

    Comment number 340.

    Lets presume for a moment that alien life out there is maybe at the stone age level and by the time they get to our technical state we will have destroyed ourselves or otherwise no longer transmitting so we will have missed each other by a few thousand years

  • rate this

    Comment number 339.

    This kind of research is a training exercise for the people involved and the larger population who get to look on and maybe get inspired by it to pursue sciences.

    Life almost certainly exists elsewhere but technological life in the time/space window viewable it is likely very rare - we only have evidence of it arising on our planet once and only in the last 100 years or so of radio signals.

  • rate this

    Comment number 338.

    337 Robert Lucien - They'll be disappointed, it's a new Moon.

    Also I think it may just be the one person with an "identity crisis".

  • rate this

    Comment number 337.

    Wow the trolls and the people who howl at the Moon are really out tonight aren't they!

  • rate this

    Comment number 336.

    331. Paul

    ROFL. You post a clip from the X Files??? Ha ha ha. Pathetic.

    As for Napoleon, yes I could. I could introduce you to René Auberjonois, who's descended from Napoleon's sister Caroline. Is his DNA "circumstantial" enough for you? LOL. You really are an idiot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 335.

    330.Graphis Sure politicians lie: that's their job.
    And the only reason that you know they lie is because they get found out. If Snowden hadn't appeared you would be believing all the spying scandal to be a Conspiracy Theory. In probably don't believe Snowden right because he hasn't got some evidence that you can touch or feel so it must all be a lie? This is YOUR way of thinking!

  • Comment number 334.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 333.

    In my view, attempting to communicate with alien intelligent species in the universe is foolish and in all probability, highly dangerous. It is likely that, if they exist, they will be as diverse as life on earth. We know enough about the other species on our own planet to know how dangerous they can be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 332.

    Gullible fool lol, Paul, the derry guy and others are the only people making any sense lol.
    Whilst i have never been probed by science, the third eye or spiritual awakening is real, i know i had it 2 years ago. Lasted 5 days, no sleep, vision, and out of this world feeling. I felt i had cracked a code, whilst reading my bible lol. Anyway, i have photo's of what i saw :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 331.

    330. Again, I ask for proof.
    You couldn't give me any proof that Napoleon Bonaparte existed.If you did I could say it is circumstantial. Anyhow if you see this link below you will see 11 UFOs passing over DC on 11 April 1952. It was explained by Gen Ramey as a temp inversion and I know this to be nonsense as I have a BSc in Geography with Meteorology

  • rate this

    Comment number 330.

    327. Paul

    Sure politicians lie: that's their job. But just because they lie about political actions doesn't mean they're lying about something that doesn't exist, and hasn't happened. LOL. You really are the most gullible fool I've ever come across. Again, I ask for proof. Real proof, something I can touch/see, not a video, not a testimony: all these can be faked. You can't offer any, can you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 329.

    The god like experiences some people talk of is caused by a small area in the brain that is over-stimulated.
    When in healthy volunteers this area is being artificially over-stimulated, they talk of al kinds of divine and godlike halucinations.
    It strikes me as odd that we can switch god on and off by the use of a button.

  • rate this

    Comment number 328.

    Always puzzles me we seem to know what happen billions of years ago but we cannot even be sure what the weather will be like next week.

  • rate this

    Comment number 327.

    325.There you go again: "credible" LOL.
    -- heard it- hoorahh! Your brainwashed by government agencies believing something not to be true becuase that's what they want you to believe. And if anyone has learned anything over the last few years its that they lie out of their back teeth. Iraq's WMD, Snowden's revelations, Watergate and on and on....penny dropping yet? Pfff

  • rate this

    Comment number 326.

    Derry City Fan said:
    "[Various nonsense followed by...] The Universe started with the Big Bang we are told. LOL. OK lets say it did. NOW how could SOMETHING ( Big Bang ) come out of NOTHING ? I know how. Do you ?
    Yes, I know how it could have come from nothing. So could you took an interest. What's the difference between the universe coming from a supernatural "nothing" v. a physical "nothing"?

  • rate this

    Comment number 325.

    321. Paul

    There you go again: "credible" LOL. Credible to who? You? Like I said, you're just reading something and wanting it to be true. Having seen how a plastic model fooled millions into believing in the Loch Ness Monster, I wouldn't trust any of your so-called "evidence". Show me something made of a mineral not found on this planet. No? Oh that's right; they got to it first LOL.

  • rate this

    Comment number 324.

    5000 yrs ago in iraq, tablets were made telling of how people came here to mine gold. They left us with facts like the earth was round, how many planets in our solar system, calendar, agriculture ect. The mayans made a calendar which is every bit as accurate as the atomic clock. Great pyramid height/width/base shows PI,Fibonacci Sequence,distance around the earth, it's also earthquake proof.


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