Searching the skies for alien life forms

SUN JOURNAL

Signals: Scientists use a telescope in northern England to look for unusual radio waves that could be messages from civilizations in space.

August 16, 1999|By Michele Nevard | Michele Nevard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JODRELL BANK, ENGLAND -- The entrance to Nuffield Radio Astronomy Laboratories is reached through narrow country lanes. By a small barrier more for show than purpose, a road sign announces "Quiet Radio Zone." There's little to suggest this is where Earth's first contact with extraterrestrial life might be made.

The Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank, in the north of England, is on a mission to discover life elsewhere in the universe. Towering into the sky over fields of flowers, its 85-foot-diameter bowl dominates the rural countryside of Cheshire while it searches the skies for unexplained signals that could be messages from other civilizations.

For three weeks every year, the Lovell telescope, one of the world's largest and most sensitive, is used by Project Phoenix to eavesdrop on the universe. Project Phoenix is part of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. The collaborative program is headquartered at the SETI Institute in California.

The Lovell telescope, also known as Jodrell Bank, is a radio telescope seeking unusual radio waves, as opposed to an optical telescope that gathers visual light.

The telescope is part of the Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferomter Network (MERLIN), an array of radio telescopes located across Great Britain. The seven telescopes covering the 140 miles from Cambridge to the Welsh border "work together to achieve a resolution equivalent to the Hubble space telescope," says Dr. Tom Muxlow of the MERLIN operations team. "We can make radio images to the same quality that the Hubble does in the visual."

The telescope is sensitive and steerable, two essentials in the extraterrestrial search. It can be pointed at any position in the heavens.

Around the huge bowl, flat-roofed, low-rise buildings dot the landscape. Gray is the predominant color. This is the serious side of science, with no consideration given to appearances.

In sharp contrast to the telescope, the Lovell control room harks back to a 1960s film set. Monitoring and operating panels seem crude and basic. Curtains, with floral designs of the same period, cover a viewing window.

Three clocks mounted on wood announce the time. There's local time, universal time as judged by Greenwich mean time and sidereal time. The stars travel by sidereal time.

Down a long thin corridor is a small, unimposing room that is at the center of the search. Gray plastic blinds cover windows, gray linoleum the floor. Computer equipment is crammed around the walls and work surfaces. This is the United Kingdom side of SETI.

SETI is privately funded. Only billionaires can afford to fund the search. Hewlett Packard in the United States is one of the major sponsors.

Project Phoenix arose out of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's SETI project, which was abandoned by a cost-conscious Congress in 1993. Jodrell Bank works with telescopes around the world, particularly Arecibo in Puerto Rico and Greenbank in West Virginia. Together they continue to narrow the search.

In 1993, NASA used the Lovell telescope to search for America's lost Mars Observer spacecraft. It was the only instrument able to do so. It is so sensitive it can detect a mobile phone from 220 million miles.

But "it's not going to be an easy search," says Muxlow. "Where on earth do you actually listen? If anybody out there doesn't have the same copy of the TV guide or whatever, how do you know what frequency to listen on?"

SETI is primarily searching for an unrecognized signal. And the universe is a noisy place.

"Hydrogen gives off the most common form of signal," says Muxlow. Meteors, stars, planets, pulsars and satellites emit radio signals. Jodrell Bank's receiver has 56 million channels, and it takes an hour and a half to scan across the band.

Sometimes the signal isn't intended to be heard. In 1960, in Greenbank, an untraceable signal appeared. Years later, scientists were told it was the American U2 spy plane, which was top secret at the time.

In 1977, scientists at Ohio State University picked up a signal that appeared to come from space. They wrote "WOW" in the margin of the computer printout. But it was short-lived excitement and has never been found again and never identified.

So what does the future hold and what is the criteria in the search for life elsewhere?

According to Muxlow, "We fundamentally expect life in our galaxy to be made from the same building blocks as ourselves." Therefore, other life in the universe is "quite likely to be based on the chemistry of carbon" and would need to have "other stars with a planetary system like ours."

Dr. Alan Penny of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, and an associate at Jodrell Bank, concurs that "no biologist has managed to come up with another life form, say, based on silicon."

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