News & Events

Jodrell Bank Searches for Extraterrestrial Civilisations

13 September 1998

The University of Manchester's Lovell radio telescope at Jodrell Bank has begun to take part in the most sensitive and comprehensive search ever undertaken for radio communications signals from Extra- Terrestrial Civilisations beyond our Solar System.

The collaborative research programme with the SETI Institute, called Project Phoenix, is using the 76-m Lovell telescope and the 305-m Arecibo telescope, located in Puerto Rico. The radio telescopes have begun to make observations of the regions around several hundred Sun-like stars that lie within a distance of 200 light years.

Ian Morison, who is co-ordinating the Jodrell Bank observations, explained that, "Astronomers expect that other civilisations are most likely to be found on planets in orbit around stars similar to our Sun. Such stars live long enough and provide enough heat to allow life a chance to evolve."

Jodrell Bank is a world leader in the development of advanced radio receivers which when used with the Lovell telescope, the second largest fully-steerable radio telescope in the world, make it exceptionally sensitive to faint radio signals. Jill Tarter, Director of the SETI Institute, points out that "by using the Arecibo and Lovell telescopes in the search we will have the most sensitive system possible."

The privately-funded SETI Institute, in California, has continued the development of a NASA multi-million channel receiver which is capable of efficiently searching a wide band of frequencies where extra- terrestrial signals might be found. The receiver is located at the Arecibo telescope and will be used to make the initial detection of signals having the appropriate characteristics. The Lovell telescope will then be immediately used to eliminate earth-based interference or confirm any suspected extra-terrestrial signal.

Previous searches for Life in the Universe have always been plagued with the problem of discriminating between a "true" extra-terrestrial signal and those originating on Earth or from artificial satellites. As Ian Morison explains: "local signals are eliminated by making simultaneous observations with the two radio telescopes. Due to their transatlantic separation, a signal has to come from a very great distance, from at least the outer part of our solar system, for the computer-based detection systems to be triggered at both telescopes. Fortunately, we can make a regular check on the system by receiving the signal from the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, now far beyond the orbit of Pluto."

The search is being undertaken during two three-week observing sessions each year and will continue for several years. As Professor Andrew Lyne, Director of Jodrell Bank, said "If an extra-terrestrial signal were detected, it would be one of the most dramatic discoveries ever made. We are glad that we can make a contribution to this exciting scientific quest."

Contacts for comments and further information:

Ian Morison ( or Alastair Gunn (
Tel: + 44 (0)1477 571321
FAX: +44 (0)1477 571618
University of Manchester
Nuffield Radio Astronomy Laboratories
Macclesfield, Cheshire SK11 8QP.

Supporting material and images at

The support material under gives background to:

  1. The history of SETI and The SETI Institute
  2. Project Phoenix - of which these observations are a part.
  3. SETI Questions - Answers to often asked questions given by Jill Tarter and Ian Morison.
  4. The Drake Equation - a look at the probability of contacting other civilisations.