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New Extra Terrestrial research project looks for funding to launch

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A dedicated band of British scientists have come together to launch a mission to find extra terrestrial life. Scientists from 11 of Britain’s top universities have joined forces with a range of scientific bodies to form a practical research and investigation unit into signs of life beyond our planet.

The scientific group, which is called the UK Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Research Network - held its first formal session on Friday at the annual National Astronomy Meeting at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

The American SETI has been up and running for a good while now, but they have a funding model that relies largely on private donations which are far more forthcoming in the United States. Previous donors to the US search for extra terrestrials have included computer magnates William Hewlett, David Packard and Gordon Moore.

With the level of private funding required for a project like this unlikely to materialise in Britain, the scientists are now in the crucial first step of their project – convincing the government to assign them a slice of the science budget. Fortunately, the Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees will be fighting their corner as the group’s patron and hopes to secure the £1 million annual budget that the SETI co-ordinator Alan Penny believes they will need.

"If we had one part in 200 - half a per cent of the money that goes into astronomy at the moment - we could make an amazing difference. We would become comparable with the American effort," he said.

Penny added: "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."

Jodrell Bank associate director Tim O'Brien however suggested that restructuring and using existing projects could be the way to go if funding wasn’t forthcoming

"If the telescopes were studying quasars, for example, we could piggy-back off that and analyse the data to look for a different type of signal - not the natural astrophysical signal that the quasar astronomer was interested in, but something in the noise that one might imagine could be associated with aliens. This approach would get you SETI research almost for free.

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