UK scholars band together in hunt for alien life

Galaxies, galaxies everywhere - as far as the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope can see. This view of nearly 10,000 galaxies is the deepest visible-light image of the cosmos. Called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, this galaxy-studded view represents a "deep" core sample of the universe, cutting across billions of light-years. The snapshot includes galaxies of various ages, sizes, shapes, and colours. The smallest, reddest galaxies, about 100, may be among the most distant known, existing when the universe was just 800 million years old. The nearest galaxies - the larger, brighter, well-defined spirals and ellipticals - thrived about 1 billion years ago, when the cosmos was 13 billion years old. In vibrant contrast to the rich harvest of classic spiral and elliptical galaxies, there is a zoo of oddball galaxies littering the field. Some look like toothpicks; others like links on a bracelet. A few appear to be interacting. These oddball galaxies chronicle a period when the universe was younger and more chaotic. Order and structure were just beginning to emerge. The Ultra Deep Field observations, taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys, represent a narrow, deep view of the cosmos. Peering into the Ultra Deep Field is like looking through a 2.5 metre-long soda straw. In ground-based photographs, the patch of sky in which the galaxies reside (just one-tenth the diameter of the full Moon) is largely empty. Located in the constellation Fornax, the region is so empty that only a handful of stars within the Milky Way galaxy can be seen in the image. In this image, blue and green correspond to colours that can be seen by the human eye, such as hot, young, blue stars and the glow of Sun-like stars in the disks of galaxies. Red represents near-infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye, such as the red glow of dust-enshrouded galaxies. The image required 800 exposures taken over the course of 400 Hubble orbits around Earth. The total amount of exposure time was 11.3 days, taken between Sept. 24, 2003 and Jan. 16, 2004.
ESA,NASA, and S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF Team

Researchers from 11 British academic institutions are joining forces to actively search for extraterrestrial life. The recently formed UK Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research Network (UKSRN) held its first meeting July 5, with researchers from the Universities of Oxford, St. Andrews, Edinburgh and Manchester taking part. Britain's Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, is the group patron.

The group is seeking about $1 million pounds per year in research funding, for projects that include technology development and using high-powered audio telescopes to detect possible signs of alien life.

"We hope that the existence of the sessions will excite interest in people in the UK astronomical community, who have been thinking about SETI, to contribute their work," the group wrote on its website. "We also hope that by exposing the whole range of UK SETI activities to the community it will promote a wider understanding of, and activity in, this subject, and the justifications for the allocation of a small fraction of the UK astronomy budget."

"SETI" is short for Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence. Some participants have been tweeting about last week's meeting using the hashtag "setinam2013." There's also a Facebook page.

"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," the group's coordinator, Alan Penny of St. Andrews School of Physics and Astronomy, told BBC News. "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."

The group's American equivalent, the SETI Institute, is a non-profit organization created in 1984 that now employs more than 120 scientists. The SETI Institute receives funding from NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy and other government and private sources.

UK academic Paul Crowther told the BBC that he doubts the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) will allocate funds to SETI research. "British astronomy] faces the prospect of a reduced volume of research grants... I would be shocked if STFC's advisory panels rated the support of UKSRN higher than such scientifically compelling competition."

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    Danielle Elliot is a freelance science editor and reporter for CBS News. She holds an M.A. in science and health journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter - @daniellelliot.