The world's largest radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, will play a role in the on-again, off-again search for signs of intelligent life on planets outside the solar system.
The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, based in Mountain View, Calif., plans to bring its 1,000-star survey of the Milky Way, known as Project Phoenix, to Arecibo by 1998.
SETI is testing new listening equipment at the 300-foot-wide receiver dish at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, W.Va., this fall.
Arecibo's dish is 1,000 feet wide. When it comes on line, it will be able to detect much fainter signals than the Green Bank dish, or any other dish currently in operation.
The SETI project studies radio signals from space looking for signals of a nonnatural origin. So far, it hasn't found any that are considered indisputably "non-natural," although there have been a few exciting "maybe's" over the years. Today, nearly all astronomers and other space scientists are convinced that intelligent life will soon be found outside the earth, most likely by a radio-type transmission from another star system.
Congress quit financing the SETI project in October of 1993, shortly after the ill-fated Mars Observer spacecraft went silent on its final approach to Mars. The SETI Institute, a private group, raised money to continue the search. Much of the new funding came from major computer companies including Intel and Hewlett-Packard.
At Arecibo, SETI will monitor 200 nearby stars.
"The big advantage with the (Arecibo) upgrade is it gives us the ability to detect fainter signals that might be coming from nearby," said Peter Backus, a radio astronomer and manager of software development for Project Phoenix.
"Our galaxy is a very small region," about 100,000 light-years wide, Backus said. "We're really just checking out our neighborhood."
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