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A £1 billion European space telescope to be launched in 2024 raises the real prospect of finding an alien civilisation among the stars, it is claimed.

Astronomer Don Pollacco, heading a consortium of scientists involved in the Plato mission, believes such a momentous discovery could happen in the next 15 years.

Signs of pollution in an Earth-like planet's atmosphere would indicate the existence of an industrial society - and alter our world view for ever.

"There are certain things you would not expect to occur naturally, and pollution is the obvious one," said Dr Pollacco, from the University of Warwick.

"I'm talking about various kinds of metals that would not occur in that state in that atmosphere. You would have to interpret that as a sign of some kind of civilisation.

"We could do this in our lifetime; that's the most exciting thing. It would change everything. It would be amazing."

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