UK astronomers and academics launched a new operation today to hunt for ET. Scientists at 11 national institutions are linking up to form the UK SETI Research Network. (SETI is the acronym for the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence).
They will combine their expertise across a range of academic disciplines, from trying to detect alien signals to the challenge of deciphering a message.
Radio telescopes across the UK and Europe will listen in for alien broadcasts. Others will monitor nearby stars to see if they can detect flashes of light or artificially constructed structures.
While some do direct searches, others will attempt to calculate how many civilisations could have existed for long enough to reach an advanced stage.
The new organisation was announced at the National Astronomy Meeting at St Andrews, Scotland. Its patron is the Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin, now Lord, Rees.
The network is being coordinated by Dr Alan Penny, of the University of St Andrews. He told Skymania News: “So far, radio has been the major method of searching, but over the last decade, searching for optical flashes has come more important. Powerful laser pulses from a planet around another star could be detected over many thousands of light-years.
“At the moment if we detected a signal that was unambiguously artificial that would be it. You wouldn’t need to understand the message – its nature would tell us that we are not alone.”
Duncan Forgan, of Edinburgh University, believes optical telescopes in space and on the ground could identify giant artificial structures around other stars. He says they could be detected by the dip in brightness when an alien planet passed in front of them.
Dr Forgan told Skymania News: “The classic suggestion is that there might exist something called a Dyson sphere that completely encircles a star and collects all its radiation. Aliens could live inside the sphere and use it as a very big habitat. People are looking for those already by searching for odd-looking stars that are very cool.
“My idea is to look for a variant of the Dyson sphere which is like a mirrored arc that reflects back any radiation from the star. This would create a force to move the star in a particular direction. They might do this if the planetary system was about to run into danger such as a cloud of gas and so they needed to give the star a nudge and push it out of the way.”
Dr Tim O’Brien, associate director of the Jodrell Bank observatory, near Manchester, said that linking the UK’s seven radio telescopes in the eMERLIN network between Manchester and Cambridge had already been used to listen for signals from nearby stars.
Future arrays of radio dishes, such as the Square Kilometre Array to be spread across southern Africa and Australia, would create a listening station powerful enough to tune into alien TV or airport-type radar signals around other stars.
Dr O’Brien added: “The first proposal to search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilisations was actually inspired by the construction of the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank.
“We went on to take part in the SETI Institute’s Project Phoenix from 1998 to 2003, searching for signals from about a thousand nearby stars. At that time the equipment required to sift through the data was expensive and unusual, but our modern telescopes are potentially capable of conducting these type of observations as a matter of course.”
Dr John Elliott of Leeds Metropolitan University is a researcher on the nature of communication and the structure of language. Having analysed more than 60 human languages, plus non-human communication, he believes scientists can develop strategies for extra-terrestrial message discovery and understanding.
He said: “Standard decipherment and decryption techniques used by the military and security agencies are not going to help much. To put the challenge into context, we still have scripts from antiquity that have remained undeciphered over hundreds of years, despite many serious attempts.”
But Professor Ian Crawford, of Birkbeck University of London, suggests that fragments of alien artefacts might be found in the lunar soil, or regolith, having been blown there by stellar winds across the galaxy. But he is pessimistic about finding any.
He told Skymania News: “My view is that if the galaxy was teeming with intelligent life, then we would know about it. Where are they? This is the Fermi Paradox. So I actually think it is very unlikely, almost inconceivable, that the galaxy can be full of advanced technological civilisations and us not having noticed.
“The galaxy is big and it takes a long time to travel between the stars, perhaps a million years, but that is still a short time compared to the 10-billion-year age of the galaxy and evolutionary timescales so you would expect that aliens would have made themselves known by now.”