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Is there anybody working out there? Cambridgeshire astronomers to search for alien factories



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Cambridgeshire astronomers hope to listen to the noise made by alien factories and spaceships using the first telescope in the UK dedicated to the search for extra-terrestrials.

They are undaunted by decades of failed attempts to find ET - and believe their new approach could improve our chances of proving we are not alone in the universe.

East Anglian Astrophysical Research Organisation (EAARO) at Alconbury. Picture: Chris Hornby
East Anglian Astrophysical Research Organisation (EAARO) at Alconbury. Picture: Chris Hornby

Jason Williams and Jeff Lashley, of the East Anglian Astrophysical Research Organisation (EAARO), intend to hunt for the “techno-signatures” of interplanetary industry and mining operations.

They hope to find the noise produced by alien industrial technologies such as machinery and spacecraft.

And unlike traditional approaches to the search for extra-terrestial intelligence (SETI), their ground-based telescope will be trained on a particular area of space with the largest number of stars, an approach similar to that adopted by the orbiting Kepler Telescope, which is searching for extra-solar planets.

They have named the project EAAROCIBO after the space telescope at Arecibo in Puerto Rico that featured in the 1997 movie Contact, starring Jodie Foster.

Operations at the 57-year-old observatory were closed by the US National Science Foundation last November after two cables gashed a 30-metre hole in the telescope’s huge reflector dish.

EAARO managing director Mr Williams said: “EAAROCIBO will be the first dedicated SETI instrument of its kind ever to be built in the UK. Our novel research strategy and innovative approach to combining classic and cutting-edge technologies will give us a refreshing new perspective in this exciting field of research.”

EAARO has a space operations centre (SOC) at Alconbury, a fully operational radio observatory and satellite ground station in Hertfordshire and an ongoing meteor radar system project on the Orkney Islands.

But the group of scientists and businessmen are looking at two other sites - one near Bodmin in Cornwall and the other on the edge of a national park in North Yorkshire - for their telescope.

First though, money must be raised. Filming started last month for a documentary that will be used to aid a crowd-funding effort.

The first funding stage is to build a scale working model of the antenna, while the second will be for the materials and services required for the antenna and associated equipment.

The concept is based on an idea by British-born physicist Professor Paul Davies, who worked for a time in the 1970s at the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy in Cambridge, alongside Prof Stephen Hawking.

Prof Davies said: “I’m delighted that EAARO will be dedicated to this new approach to SETI. While all searches are welcome, what the subject really needs is some innovative thinking. Under Jason Williams’ leadership, the EAARO project will serve as an inspirational trailblazer for SETI 2.0.”

Could we detect the techno-signatures of extra-terrestrial life?
Could we detect the techno-signatures of extra-terrestrial life?

The best candidate so far for an alien radio transmission - and one that is still unexplained to this day - came on August 15, 1977, in the US, when Ohio State University's Big Ear radio telescope detected a signal that appeared to come from the direction of the constellation Sagittarius.

Astronomer Jerry R Ehman spotted the anomaly - which bore hallmarks of what we might expect from an extraterrestrial source - while reviewing the recorded data a few days later, and famously circled the reading on the printout, 6EQUJ5, and wrote the word “Wow!” by its side. It is now known as the ‘Wow!’ event - and has not been detected since.

In 1998, the Big Ear was disassembled when developers purchased the site to expand a golf course.

EAARO says that in honour of Dr John D Kraus, who designed and created the telescope, it will rebuild a similar ‘Kraus Style’ telescope as the receiving end of EAAROCIBO.

The project is supported by David Clarke, an associate professor at Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Culture Media and Society.

He said: “The desire to find evidence that we are not alone in the universe may become one of the defining human quests of the 21st century. Opinion polls consistently show that up to half of all Britons believe that ET life exists.

“This project is important because direct confirmation that we are not alone is seen by many as being fundamental to understanding our true place in the cosmos.”

Robert Kuhn, creator and host of the TV series Closer to Truth, said: “For centuries, as part of humanity’s grand quest to comprehend existence, to find our place in the vast, ineffable cosmos, great minds have been wondering about, and arguing about, the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence on other planets.

“As we continue to confirm new earth-like planets throughout our galaxy, and no doubt throughout the universe, employing new technologies in our search, here’s hoping EAARO can help bring us closer to truth.”

EAARO is a not-for-profit charitable company established in 2011 as a space research organisation, focused on public engagement. It aims to educate and inspire people in the field of science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.

A brief history of failed searches

Humankind’s first attempt to detect interstellar radio transmissions came 60 years ago, when Frank Drake tried his luck with an 85-foot antenna at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia.

More recently, billionaire Yuri Milner backed a $100million effort to find alien life by searching for signals from a million nearby stars.

But there is plenty of scope left.

Guillermo Lemarchand, an Argentinian physicist and UNESCO consultant, suggests we have probed about a hundred-trillionth of the cosmic haystack for intelligent signals.

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