London: British astronomers have launched a new effort to find alien life among stars. Academics from 11 institutions and observatories have set up a network to co-ordinate their Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

The UK SETI Research Network (UKSRN) covers a broad spectrum of research topics, including potential methods for detecting signals, the linguistic challenge of deciphering messages, the probability of an extraterrestrial civilization interacting with Earth and the longevity of civilizations.

"The first proposal to search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations was actually inspired by the construction of the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank," said Dr Tim O'Brien from The University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory.

The recently commissioned e-MERLIN array of seven radio telescopes for SETI projects, which includes the Lovell Telescope, is connected by optical fibers and spread over 217 km from Jodrell Bank to Cambridge.

This multi-telescope approach offers potential for distinguishing true extraterrestrial signals from interference generated here on Earth, a key problem for all radio SETI projects. "Its early days for this new SETI work at Jodrell but we think that using e-MERLIN, and future facilities such as the Square Kilometre Array, we could make an important contribution to the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe," O'Brien said.

Dr John Elliott of Leeds Metropolitan University believes that by understanding our analytical capabilities for communication, we can develop strategies for extra-terrestrial message discovery and understanding.

"Suppose SETI succeeds and we detect a technological beacon.  Any message is unlikely to be written in Martian English, so standard decipherment/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," said Elliott.

"By looking beneath the surface veneer of the arbitrary sounds and symbols used, we can 'see' the language machine itself: its mechanisms, constraints, evolutionary forces of efficiency and compromise it’s shape. By understanding these structures, it should be possible to glean information on the intelligence of the message author," said Elliott.


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