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UK boffins: extraterrestrial life will be discovered soon

Aliens' TV preferences could spark interstellar invasion

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Top British boffins are convinced that evidence of alien life will soon be discovered outside the solar system.

According to reports in both the Guardian and the Telegraph, a group of seven eminent astronomers was convened yesterday by UK Science Minister Malcolm Wicks.

The brain trust collectively expected that indications of less-complex life would emerge within ten years, as large numbers of extrasolar planets are identified and investigated.

"Twenty years ago we only had one solar system to study and that's the one we live in," said Prof Keith Mason of the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

"But since then, there's been an explosion in the number of planets outside our solar system that we've been able to detect."

Hundreds of planets orbiting distant stars have been spotted in recent decades by astronomers using new techniques. Prof Mason and his fellow skywatchers expect to be able to pick out those on whose surface liquid water can exist, which would be a prerequisite for the appearance of life along the same lines as Earth.

Most of the scientists thought that not only vegetation, microbes and the like would be discovered, but also intelligent life. The only sceptic among the seven boffins, Dr Michael Perryman (late of the European Space Agency), felt that the circumstances which have led to intelligence on Earth were probably unique. Even he, however, expected that relatively nearby stars might have planets inhabited by simpler lifeforms.

Reportedly, Dr Perryman said he would be unsurprised to hear that chlorophyll had been detected on another world within a few months. (Chlorophyll being the molecule in plants which permits free atmospheric oxygen to accumulate - and without which animal life on Earth could not exist.)

"Don't underestimate what a huge revolution this whole business of finding planets has been in science," said Dr Perryman. "Everyone now is working on this."

The European Space Agency will launch a space mission called Darwin in 2015, which "will use a flotilla of three space telescopes, each at least 3 metres in diameter, and a fourth spacecraft to server as communications hub. The telescopes will operate together to scan the nearby Universe, looking for signs of life on Earth-like planets." The Darwin distributed scopes are to be deployed in the Earth-Sun L2 point, circling the sun beyond Earth's orbit.

Several of Mr Wicks' minsterial advisors felt that Darwin was the project which would first produce conclusive evidence of life off Earth, but others suggested that results could be achieved sooner.

Mr Wicks, known for his views that science education should be jazzed up with references to Doctor Who and Star Wars, said that the boffins' assessment that alien life would soon be found was "very interesting."

"As a lay person," he added, "that is how I would vote as well, given the vastness of space."

On the general theme of science fiction, the old SF staple of Earth broadcasts travelling outwards at the speed of light and being received by aliens decades later was trotted out again.

"As from 1927, we have been propagating outwards from Earth, a very specific indicator of our existence," said Perryman. Early radio trasmissions would by now have reached eighty light-years from the Solar System.

"That is going to encompass many hundreds of potentially habitable planets," according to Perryman. "If there is intelligent life out there, they sure as hell know we are here."

A quick look at the European Union Encyclopaedia of Extrasolar Planets reveals where the alien residents of various planets may have got to in the Earthly broadcast schedule.

Epsilon Eridani B (1997): Teletubbies

Gamma Cephei B (1968): Dad's Army

rho Coronae Borealis B (1950): Andy Pandy

And so on. Of course, aliens who have achieved faster-than-light star travel would be able to move in and out from Earth in order to retrieve missed episodes or jump ahead to the next series. This indicates that today's PVRs, online services and P2P downloads are really quite primitive TV kit compared to what visiting aliens may be able to show us.

Of course, as ever, content is king. You'd need a really serious stimulus to put in the sort of effort that could lead to hyperdrive starships available for TV timeshifting. The lads out at rho Coronae Borealis B aren't likely to bother, as they'll be expecting nothing more than black-and-white coverage of the Festival of Britain.

On the other hand, any residents of planets orbiting the dwarf star GJ 849 will shortly be receiving the first series of Fawlty Towers, according to El Reg's calculations, and they won't get the second one for another four years. That might easily motivate them to get cracking on their space programme.

Sadly for those looking forward to visits from alien John Cleese aficionados, the only planet detected at GJ849 weighs nearly as much as Jupiter, suggesting a dense atmosphere in which cathode ray tubes couldn't exist. The unfortunate locals, if any, may never have developed television at all.®

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