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UK boffins are going on an alien hunt

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Physicists have been hearing this afternoon about attempts by UK astronomers to find evidence of alien life - buried in over 2000 hours of archived telescope data.

A group of researchers at Leeds University re-examined images collected by the Whipple Cherenkov telescope in Arizona, and presented the results at The Insititute of Physics conference, Nuclear and Particle Physics Conference at the University of Surrey.

Whipple is used primarily for detecting high energy gamma rays, but is also useful for spotting the kind of optical signal that could be used to identify alien civilisations, the researchers say.

Dr Joachim Rose at Leeds University said: “The Whipple telescope has an ultra high-speed camera to record faint flashes of light from cosmic rays and from high-energy gamma rays entering the Earth’s atmosphere. There are 20 to 30 naturally occurring light flashes recorded every second. A few unusual images from extraterrestrial’s signals would be easy to miss as the analysis software normally rejects anything that it doesn't expect.

"On average we see such an unusual flash every six hours when pointing in the direction of one of these candidate stars. However, this is comparable to the rate of similar flashes in other regions of the sky where there is no candidate star.

The team has examined more than 2000 hours of telescope data from the archives, and it isn't letting anything as boring as a lack of solid results get in its way. Dr Stella Bradbury, who also works on the project, quotes astronomer Frank Drake: “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”.

She continues: ”So far only a minute fraction of the sky has been searched and arrays of telescopes can carry out much more sensitive searches than a single telescope”. ®

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