Search for life beyond Earth becomes official

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THE SEARCH for life on other planets was put on an official footing yesterday with an initiative to co-ordinate Britain's research into finding extra- terrestrial life.

The British National Space Centre is to co-ordinate projects in universities and research institutes, where studies will range from analysing the microbes living in the Antarctic and on the seabed, to sending probes to Mars and one of Jupiter's moons. "This is not just a talking shop, it is about getting scientists to work together," said Don Cowan, a planetary scientist at University College London, who will lead the UK Astrobiology Panel.

Biologists studying "extremophile" microbes, astronomers searching for inhabitable planets beyond the Solar System, and geologists analysing how life transforms our planet, would work under the one umbrella, Dr Cowan said. "Brought together, they make a powerful force in astrobiology, which will enable us to find out still more about where we come from and what other life might exist or have existed in the universe."

The space centre estimates that Britain will contribute more than pounds 100m over the next decade to projects that involve searching for extra-terrestrial life. It argues that an organisation is needed to oversee the collaboration of different scientific disciplines.

Monica Grady, an authority on meteorites at the Natural History Museum in London, said there were at least three places in the Solar System - such as Mars, Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Titan - where life might evolve.

Britain is to take a prominent role in the search for extra- terrestrial microbes with a Mars lander called Beagle 2, which is scheduled for launch in 2003. Probes to look for life on Europa and Titan are also planned."We're going to swim through Europa's oceans and hang-glide through Titan's atmosphere," Dr O'Grady said.