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Sunday, February 1, 1998 Published at 18:42 GMT


Scientists listen intently for ET
image: [ Scientists will attempt to find out if aliens are trying to communicate with us ]
Scientists will attempt to find out if aliens are trying to communicate with us

British scientists are to help American experts search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.

Radio astronomers at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire are to take part in a project linking two of the world's biggest radio telescopes.

The 250ft Lovell Telescope, which is operated by the University of Manchester, will provide support to the vast 1,000ft telescope at Arecibo in Puerto Rico. It is hoped the project will start next month.

[ image: The 250ft Lovell radio telescope will be scanning for signals]
The 250ft Lovell radio telescope will be scanning for signals
Over a 10-year period, the two instruments will listen for artificial radio messages which could signify an attempt at communication by an alien civilisation.

The telescopes can pick up radio waves within a range of 150 light years from the Earth. They will be focusing on the parts of space where 2,000 stars similar to our sun are located.

The programme is a turning point for the American organisation dedicated to discovering whether or not we really are alone in the universe.

The SETI Institute (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) currently operates a relatively small 140ft radio telescope at Greenbank, West Virginia.

Later this year the the institute will switch to using the telescope in Puerto Rico. At 1000ft in diameter it is the largest single-dish radio telescope in the world.

How will it work?

[ image: ET to phone by 2013?]
ET to phone by 2013?
The telescope at Arecibo is built in the natural hollow of a mountain and uses the rotation of the Earth to scan the sky.

Jodrell Bank's role will be to confirm any likely candidates for extraterrestrial messages and help locate their source.

Using two telescopes at different points on the Earth will also reduce ground-based interference and enable the astronomers to locate the source of a signal much more accurately.

SETI's space scanning programme, Project Phoenix, was launched in the 1970's. Dr Richard Davis, senior lecturer in physics and astronomy at Manchester University, said: "People often wonder why SETI hasn't been successful so far, but a serious search has not been made to date.

"This is the first time we've had a system that's really up to the job. If there are any transmissions out there, we'll find them."

Scientists hope the Lovell telescope can be devoted to SETI for at least one month a year.

"Crossing the threshold"

Dr Seth Shostak, from the SETI Institute, said he expected to find clear evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence in the next 10 to 15 years.

"It seems not unreasonable to think we may now be crossing the threshold," he said.

Dr Shostak said the best hope of success was to find a message that was sent to Earth by aliens who intended it to be discovered. Other ET broadcasts might well be completely unintelligible to humans.

Dr Davis is a little less confident than his American colleague about locating a signal.

"Hand on heart, we don't know if we'll be successful. The chances are that something like 100th of the star systems out there will have planets like the Earth. I'm keeping an open mind."

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  Internet Links

Arecibo Observatory

SETI Institute - Project Phoenix

Jodrell Bank - The Lovell Telescope

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