£10m super telescope set to communicate with other lifeforms from Preston’s Student Centre

Posted on - 1st April, 2023 - 9:00am | Author - | Posted in - Preston News, UCLan, University campus
A CGI of what the JHI Exoplanet Super Telescope might look like on the UCLan Student Centre
Student Centre and University Square photos

If E.T. is still phoning home then the University of Central Lancashire may be the one to answer after plans to install an exciting new and powerful telescope on the Preston Campus were unveiled.

Stellar work by Astrophysics experts from UCLan’s Jeremiah Horrocks Institute (JHI) for Mathematics, Physics and Astronomy means that the University will play a pivotal role in sending out a message to potential other life forms within the universe via a specialised radio telescope that will sit on the roof of the Student Centre.

The £10 million development follows on from several other successful high-profile projects UCLan has been working on with international space agencies, including teaming up with NASA to produce the highest-ever definition images of the sun in 2020 and the first ever image of a black hole in 2019.

Read more: UCLan’s breathtaking SUN exhibition lights up European museum

Similar to the Event Horizon Telescope, which links a network of radio telescopes to search for black holes, the JHI Exoplanet Super Telescope will link to additional planned radio telescopes at Moor Park Observatory and Alston to form a powerful trio of megawatt transmitters.

The steerable telescope of 20 metres diameter will be capable of transmitting over 1 megawatt (1MW) of power.  It is possible that with a large antenna at the other end with a sensitive receiver, a sufficiently technologically advanced civilisation could detect Earth’s signal from halfway across the Milky Way galaxy.

Read more: Uclan astronomers reveal first image of the black hole at the heart of Milky Way

UCLan astrophysicist Dr Megan Argo specialises in studying galaxies, supernovae and black holes at high resolution using large networks of radio telescopes and is leading on the new venture.

She said: “This is a thrilling and bold step for astrophysics at UCLan. Although similar transmissions have been sent in the past, the most well-known one being from the Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico on 16 November 1974, technology moves on and we’re capable now of sending a much more powerful signal into deep space more easily than we could 50 years ago. 

“The Arecibo message was aimed at the current location of Messier 13, about 25,000 light years from Earth, but ours will be targeted at planetary systems exhibiting frequently outbursting over-luminous signals, recently identified as most likely to be potentially habitable, by surveys such as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

“The dark skies over Lancashire mean the region is a hotbed for UFO sightings. I think it’s unlikely we’ll find any little green people, but through the power of our new super telescope, we’ll come one step nearer to unravelling some of the universe’s biggest secrets.”

Read more: UCLan joins world’s first independent space science mission

Planning of a project on this scale has been years in the making. Health and safety is paramount and the University is keen to reassure the people of Preston that they have nothing to worry about when the new telescope becomes a fixture on the city’s landscape.

A hidden metallic mesh layer under the roof garden of the Student Centre was added when it was built to prepare for the addition of the Jeremiah Horrocks Institute ET Super Telescope. The mesh will act as a screen protecting the people in the building from any stray microwave radiation. This is the same principle that microwave ovens use to keep you safe while using them. 

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Megan added: “UCLan already has an excellent reputation for its astrophysics research. Professor Derek Ward-Thompson is part of the global Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration who produced the first ever image of a black hole and Professor of Solar Physics Robert Walsh, a world-leading expert on the Sun and its interaction with Earth, has worked on several NASA projects. We even have a PhD student who recently discovered a giant arc of galaxies 9.2 billion light years away!

“I’m over the moon to lead on this ground-breaking project that will really put UCLan and Preston on the map in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.”

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