Scientists from 11 British institutions are partnering in a project to comb the universe for signs of alien intelligence, the latest in a mushrooming effort to continue the ET hunt, even as government funding for those projects dwindles.
The team, called the UK Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research Network, held its first formal session on Friday at the annual National Astronomy Meeting, at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. It is asking for $1.5 million a year from donors to operate a network of seven telescopes called eMerlin that will be used to analyze radio waves received from outer space, in hopes of deciphering a message from the stars, the BBC said.
“There is a small but active group of SETI researchers in the UK, who need a forum to discuss their work,” wrote the scientists in their abstract for the conference. “We also hope that by exposing the whole range of UK SETI activities to the community, it will promote a wider understanding of, and activity in, this subject, and the justifications for the allocation of a small fraction of the UK astronomy budget.”
The eMerlin telescopes are presently used to collect data from cosmic objects like pulsar stars. The new funding would be put toward sifting through that information for extraterrestrial intelligence, as well as toward allowing scientists to pivot the telescopes towards targeted, potentially lucrative regions where planets are thought to orbit stars in the habitable zone – the sweet spot where the planet is neither too far from the sun, freezing its water, nor too close to the sun, boiling its water.
"We now have the capability to collect radiowaves across a wide swathe of the radiowave spectrum, and that allows us to look at the possibility of searching for the sorts of signals that might be created by ET civilisations," said Tim O'Brien, deputy director of Jodrell Bank, at the meeting, The Guardian reported.
The British plans for the program would rank the UK second after the US in the amount of resources put toward looking for alien intelligence out in the stars.
Over the past few decades, governments have largely pulled back from pursuing extraterrestrial intelligent life: In the U.S., SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) programs have received no federal funds since 1993, when the government pulled its funding in response to mounting calls that huge sums were being dribbled into something of an intellectual black hole, after about thirty years had passed with no word from aliens. Still, public interest in finding and connecting with intelligent aliens has endured.
“We are explorers by nature,” said Bryan Farha, director of Applied Behavioral Studies & Counseling at Oklahoma City University and a scientific and technical consultant to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, in an email interview. “We search for extraterrestrial life because positive findings would represent the most profound scientific discovery in the history of human existence. It would ‘deprovincialize’ the Earth, to use a Carl Sagan term.”
The American SETI programs, run out of universities and private institutions, have since losing federal funds relied entirely on private financial sources. One of those programs, the California-based SETI Institute, cobbled together the needed funds through a crowd-source funding website to keep its 42 San Francisco radio dishes working. It continues to operate on little more than a shoestring budget and an inexhaustible supply of hope from the earth bound but celestially curious: even if one stars planets turn up empty, there are some 99,999,999,999 or so more stars to prod, still more searching to do.
Though the sheer volume of stars and planets in baffling, far-flung galaxies we know little or nothing about suggests that life could and should exist somewhere in the universe, Earth is the only planet confirmed to have life. Most government-funded alien hunting programs in recent years have marshaled funding toward looking not for intelligent alien life as we imagine it within the limited paradigms of our own imagination but for any life at all.
Astrobiologists have proposed that if life exists elsewhere it is microbial (and not sending out radio signals), since that form of life is resistant to climatic extremes, such as those possibly found on distant planets. To that end, scientists have proposed that the search for ET might well begin here on Earth, in searching for organisms in our own planet's remotest, most hostile corridors for organisms that use inconceivably different biochemical processes that might mirror those of the radically foreign microscopic beings biding their time elsewhere in the universe.
"A single celled organism on a distant planet in a far-away galaxy — technically is an alien," said Farha. "This may be the most likely scenario — in which case the British efforts will not detect [it]."