It could have been the most significant TV broadcasting moment since man set foot on the moon, when Stargazing Live presenter Professor Brian Cox, told BBC2 producers that he was hoping to make contact with alien life on a newly discovered planet.
But instead of the programme going down in the annals of TV history, the idea was shelved at the last minute, as bosses blocked his plans due to corporation guidelines. Professor Cox was aiming to point a radio telescope at a planet called Threapleton Holmes B, the planet that was actually discovered by amateur stargazers during a project featured on a previous show.
This radio telescope, which is based at Manchester University’s Jodrell Bank Observatory, picks up distant radio emissions from planets and the event was due to be staged live on air.
However, when BBC bosses found out, they went into panic mode, and put a stop to the event, in case the telescope actually picked up a transmission from an ‘alien civilisation’.
Professor Brian Cox recalled yesterday in a radio interview on BBC6 Music, how BBC bosses balked at the idea that he could make contact with another planet, and said that this was a breach of corporation guidelines. Professor Cox said: “We decided that we’d point the Jodrell Bank telescope at the planet that had been discovered by these two viewers and listen because no one had ever pointed a radio telescope at it and you never know,” he recalled.
“The BBC actually said, ‘But you can’t do that because we need to go through the regulations and health and safety and everything in case we discover a signal from an alien civilisation’.‘(I said), ‘You mean we would discover the first hint that there is other intelligent life in the universe beyond Earth, live on air, and you’re worried about the health and safety of it?’ It was incredible. They did have guidelines. Compliance.”
The host of BBC6’s breakfast show, Shaun Keaveny, could not believe what Professor Cox was telling him, but admitted it was typical perhaps of BBC behaviour, “The idea that intelligent life could be discovered and it might swear and that’s why we wouldn’t broadcast it – it’s such a brilliant BBC thing, isn’t it?” he said. And there’s more, Professor Cox also said he had a second bizarre encounter with BBC bosses during the show when he suggested asking volunteers to scour pictures of Mars for signs of geological activity that computer scrutiny might have missed.
“Someone from the BBC said to me, ‘Would there have to be a prize if someone discovered it?’ (I said), ‘What do you mean? You’re going to say to someone, you discovered the first evidence for alien life beyond Earth – and here’s a book voucher as well? You think that’s going to make it better? You’re going to go down in history with a Nobel prize – book tokens or Nectar points?”
A BBC spokesman said: “In making the series there were many light-hearted conversations, one of which was about how different organisations might react to the discovery of alien life.” It is thought that the easy going manner in which Professor Brian Cox explains difficult astronomical concepts is one of the reasons why Stargazing Live has experienced record ratings this year, peaking at 3.8million.
Threapleton Holmes B was discovered during the show in January by amateur scientists Lee Threapleton and Chris Holmes and it is though that this is only the third time British amateurs have found a new planet. The amateur scientists made their discovery by spotting changes in light patterns in an image from Nasa’s Kepler space telescope.