UK scientists petition government for £1m to search for alien life

Newly created UK Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Research Network would use new array of radio telescopes dubbed eMerlin

James Vincent
Tuesday 09 July 2013 10:28
Jodrell Bank Observatory: The giant Lovell Telescope - used for listening to radio signals from space - was completed in 1957
Jodrell Bank Observatory: The giant Lovell Telescope - used for listening to radio signals from space - was completed in 1957

A group of British astronomers are hoping to launch a new mission to search for signs of extraterrestrial life in space. The group of scientists from 11 UK universities have dubbed themselves the UK Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Research Network, and are currently petitioning the government for a small part of the UK’s science budget - £1m in annual funding.

"If we had one part in 200 - half a per cent of the money that goes into astronomy at the moment - we could make an amazing difference,” said Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and the group’s patron. “We would become comparable with the American effort.”

The US currently leads the global search for extraterrestrial life; though its efforts are bankrolled by private donations - government funding was removed from the NASA budget in 1981.

The new plans would connect seven major telescopes across the country in a new array connected by superfast fibre optic cables and called eMerlin. The telescopes would gather data to send back to Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire,where the signals would be analysed for signs of alien intelligence.

"We now have the capability to collect radiowaves across a wide swathe of the radiowave spectrum,” said Tim O’Brien, deputy director at Jodrell Bank. “That allows us to look at the possibility of searching for the sorts of signals that might be created by ET civilisations."

Although it’s uncertain whether any part of the UK’s science budget would be given over to such pursuits, O’Brien believes that the analysis could performed alongside more customary research.

"You could do serendipitous searches," says O'Brien. "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.”

Speaking to The Guardian, O’Brien said "Ask astronomers do they think ET exists and most will tell you yes.”

Fermi's famous question: 'Where is everybody?'

Many scientists’ belief in extraterrestrial life is based upon the Fermi paradox, an argument from Enrico Fermi and Michael Hart that notes the apparent contradiction between the high probability for the existence of alien life and our current inability to contact any. Fermi summarised his hypothesis by simply asking, 'Where is everybody?'

The argument is based on the observations that the Earth is comparatively young star, and that there are billions of stars in the galaxy that are billions of years older; of these there are plenty of Earth-like planets; and if life developed as it did on Earth then any significantly long-lived civilization would probably create interstellar travel.

As The Register pointed out though, scientists involved in the search for alien life are by no means uniformly optimistic. Austin Grieg’s theory of ‘universal doomsday’ suggests that because we have not yet encountered any long-lived civilizations it seems likely that this is because such civilizations tend to kill themselves off.

Other ‘solutions’ to the Fermi paradox have included the ‘Zoo hypothesis’ – first proposed by John Ball in 1973 and arguing that extraterrestrial life has “set us aside as part of a wilderness area or zoo” to let us develop ‘naturally’.

Yet more suggestions include the idea that we simply can't interpret signals from alien life (we are only really concerned with detecting radiowaves), or that the galactic conditions for supporting advanced intelligence have only recently come about (also known as the phase transition model).

Regardless of what a SETI project might or might not find however, the prospects are intimidating. As author Arthur C. Clarke succinctly put it: “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

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