Are Aliens Out There? UK Astronomers Launch Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research Network

on July 08 2013 11:41 AM
Lovell Telescope
The Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank is part of the e-MERLIN network of telescopes to be used by the UKSRN. Anthony Holloway, University of Manchester

A group of UK astronomers is launching the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research Network. The network would serve as a counterpart to the United States’ efforts to find alien intelligence.

In the U.S. the SETI Institute hunts for alien intelligence by trying to detect radio signals that would indicate attempted communication from an intelligent life-form. SETI also conducts research to better understand the concept of alien life, such as determining how prevalent life may be on other planets or what type of life forms may actually exist in the universe.

The UK SETI Research Network was announced at the annual meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The network will include researchers from the University of Oxford, University of Manchester, University of St. Andrews, Kingsland Observatory and the British Interplanetary Society. The UKSRN will try to detect radio signals while conducting research that will look at the different ways of detecting alien life, investigate the odds that an alien civilization actually exists and the probability that the intelligent life is trying to communicate with Earth. The UKSRN will also investigate the longevity of a possible alien civilization.

The researchers involved in the project hope the announcement will attract other astronomers to join in the search for alien intelligence. UKSRN coordinator Dr. Alan Penny, from the University of St. Andrews, said of the project, “We hope that the existence of the network will excite interest from people in the UK astronomical community that have been thinking about SETI and encourage them to contribute their work.”

In their attempt to search for alien intelligence, the UKSRN will use the e-MERLIN network of seven radio telescopes to search the skies for signs of communication. The connected telescopes will help researchers determine if a radio signal is of extraterrestrial origin or just interference from Earth.

According to Dr. Tim O’Brien, from the University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Observatory, astronomers believe there is life out there and, speaking to the Guardian, believes answers can be found in the data currently being collected by the telescopes. The Guardian notes the e-MERLIN network is currently collecting data on different space phenomena and UKSRN plans on examining the data to look for any signs of an alien broadcast. “We don't know what the nature of life would be, or whether it wants to communicate with us, but since we're collecting all this data anyway, it seems rather remiss not to search for ET signals,” said O’Brien.

Even if the team did detect an alien signal their work would not be over as the process of deciphering an alien language could prove to be rather difficult. Dr. John Elliott, from the Leeds Metropolitan University, said typical decryption methods would not work and researchers would need to look at how the language works, analyzing for repetition or different patterns, in order to gain any understanding of the broadcast. Elliot said, “By looking beneath the surface veneer of the arbitrary sounds and symbols used, we can 'see' the language machine itself: its mechanisms, constraints, and evolutionary forces of efficiency and compromise that shape it.  By understanding these structures, it should be possible to glean information on the intelligence of the message author.”

The search for alien intelligence can also lead to some new discoveries about life on Earth. Among the biggest questions associated with the search for alien intelligence is why there has been no contact yet with other life. The answer could indicate that life is even rarer than previously believed and that our civilization’s existence may only last for a few more centuries. Dr. Austin Gerig, from the University of Oxford, said based on what is known about Earth, it could be assumed that other civilizations exist and are similar to that of Earth, with populations numbering in the billions. Gerig said, “If most civilizations are small, then our own civilization is likely to be small, i.e., it is likely to die out within the next few centuries.”

Future research plans for UKSRN could include targeted searches for alien intelligence that would focus on planets orbiting within the habitable zone of a star, the area where liquid water could exist on the planet’s surface. According to O’Brien, the network may expand in the future to include new facilities that will aid in the search for alien life.