Up until recently, Americans have monopolized the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The U.K. is now looking to get in on the action by launching an academic network to aid in research related to finding, reaching out and communicating with potential alien life forms. The network held its first meeting to discuss strategy in St. Andrews, Scotland, on July 5.
The U.K. SETI Research Network (UKSRN) — which brings together academics from 11 institutions — will cover a variety of research topics.
“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,” said Dr. Alan Penny, the UKSRN coordinator.
Recently, the UK’s e-MERLIN array of radio telescopes at Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank was commissioned for use for SETI projects. The e-MERLIN array includes the Lovell Telescope, which inspired the use of radio signals in the search for extraterrestrial messages and was part of the SETI Institute’s Project Phoenix from 1998 to 2003.
Previously, the technology to sift through data received from space was expensive and cumbersome. It was also difficult to distinguish between true extraterrestrial signals and standard interference generated on Earth. Modern day telescopes like the e-MERLIN are much more capable of examining data receive. Also, using e-MERLIN with the Lovell Telescope will allow researchers to determine which signals are unique.
So what happens when we receive an extraterrestrial message? Considering that there are ancient texts on Earth that still haven’t been deciphered, how will we translate messages from space? This is one challenge that the UKSRN hopes to resolve. Dr. John Elliot of Leeds Metropolitan University believes that by understanding our own abilities to understand communication, we can develop strategies for translating alien messages:
“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.”
Other discussions by the team will be held on how to communicate with extraterrestrial life and the actual probability of an extraterrestrial civilization interacting with Earth and the longevity of civilizations.