The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, is one of the most profound — yet speculative — scientific pursuits of this generation. There is no evidence that any extraterrestrial life exists in our galactic neighborhood, yet we still try to ‘listen’ out for a sufficiently advanced alien race across the interstellar void. And now the SETI effort won’t be restricted to US-managed radio antennae — the British are joining the hunt.
Currently, SETI efforts are funded by private donations, but the UK SETI Research Network (UKSRN), comprised of scientists from 11 institutions, is eying government funds to give their search a turbo-boost.
“If we had one part in 200 — half a percent of the money that goes into astronomy at the moment — we could make an amazing difference. We would become comparable with the American effort,” said Alan Penny, UKSRN coordinator and researcher at the University of St Andrews, in an interview with BBC News. The UKSRN carried out their first meeting at the National Astronomy Meeting (NAM2013) at St. Andrews, Scotland, on Friday (July 5).
“I don’t know whether (aliens) are out there, but I’m desperate to find out. It’s quite possible that we’re alone in the Universe. And think about the implications of that: if we’re alone in the Universe then the whole purpose in the Universe is in us. If we’re not alone, that’s interesting in a very different way.”
“There are billions of planets out there. It would be remiss of us not to at least have half an ear open to any signals that might be being sent to us,” added Tim O’Brien of Jodrell Bank, a radio antennae that has been used for SETI projects in the past.
The network is applying for one million pounds ($1.5 million) per year for time on radio telescopes and data analysis.
Sadly, justifying public funds to back a project with no definite final outcome can be a tricky proposition, especially in the existing climate of government science cuts and fiscal woes. It therefore seems difficult to see why the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the primary funding body of UK science and technology, would support such an effort.
“Continued flat-cash science budget awards are constantly eroding STFC’s buying powers, causing the UK to withdraw from existing productive facilities such as the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope,” said Paul Crowther of Sheffield University. “(British astronomy) faces the prospect of a reduced volume of research grants, and participation in future high-impact facilities is threatened. I would be shocked if STFC’s advisory panels rated the support of UKSRN higher than such scientifically compelling competition.”
But in an ideal universe, where science receives the funding it deserves, justifying money on the hunt for intelligent extraterrestrials isn’t such a hard-sell.
For starters, analyzing radio antennae data for artificial signals isn’t such a resource-heavy project. Using existing radio antennae and groups of antennae (hooked up as interferometers), SETI projects can “piggyback” on surveys being carried out by other research groups and vice versa. Also, the development of technologies to whittle out artificial messages from cosmic noise will have tangible benefits for radio astronomy and communications techniques.
And then there’s the public interest in SETI projects. Undoubtedly there will be those who see any SETI effort a waste of time, but to be at the level of intelligence and technological know-how to actually conceive the prospect of life on Earth not being the only life in our galaxy is a profound philosophical epoch for the evolution of our species.
As embodied in the privately-funded Lone Signal project that was launched last month, the public interest in “reaching out” to the stars appears to be unwavering. Lone Signal is a Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) project that aims to be active for many decades, beaming crowd-sourced messages to the stars in the hope that some benevolent ETI is listening and asking the same questions we are.
Of course, as with any METI effort, whether we should be beaming “proof of life” radio waves to nearby stars at all is questionable — who knows if the Milky Way’s inhabitants are friendly? We could be living in a interstellar ecosystem where humanity is a mere ants nest. Should we really be transmitting our presence in spite of the risk of getting trampled?
Alternatively, should we endeavor to be “radio silent,” and risk a lonely existence, never to make contact with that neighboring, yet invisible, hypothetical alien civilization?
Likewise, should we stop scanning the skies for intelligent alien signals because of budget restraints and political shortsightedness? The discovery of any life beyond Earth would be historic, but to pick up communications from another civilization of comparable technology would be revolutionary. I, for one, also want to know if we are truly alone in our galaxy and if not, would love to open communications with our fellow galactic inhabitants. But to do so, we need long-term funding for long-duration surveys. But to do so, we need to overcome our myopic nature and commit to long-term science endeavors that may be speculative, but the potential returns could be huge.
Image: Jodrell Bank’s Lovell radio telescope, part of the UKSRN effort. Credit: Getty