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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Alien signals will be found by 2025

The skies are to be swept for signs of alien life in the most far reaching scan of its kind.

A total of 42 radio dishes have started collecting scientific data from the furthest reaches of the universe, part of the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) in Hat Creek, around 270 miles north of San Francisco.

Astronomer Seth Shostak has compared the project to the 1997 Hollywood film "Contact," in which Jodie Foster plays a scientist based at a remote monitoring station trying to decipher signals from a distant civilization.

"The Allen Telescope Array will be like 200 million Jodie Fosters sitting out there listening," said Shostak of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute and the University of California, Berkeley.

"We don't know how many needles are in the galactic haystack of 400 billion stars, but I think we will find (signals from intelligent civilizations) by 2025," he said.

There are some 200 billion stars in our galaxy, depending on which estimate you believe, and a significant fraction of them have planets. Estimates of the number of intelligent civilizations in the galaxy have ranged from zero into the millions.

The dishes will be part of an eventual army of telescopes numbering around 350, each 20 ft in diameter, that are being deployed to help advance radio astronomy. Using the separate antennas as if they were one giant dish, radio astronomers will be able to map vast swaths of the sky cheaply and efficiently.

"The ATA's technical capabilities exponentially increase our ability to search for intelligent signals, and may lead to the discovery of thinking beings elsewhere in the universe," "It is the first major telescope in the world built specifically for undertaking a search for extraterrestrial intelligence," he added.

Leo Blitz, director of the radio astronomy laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, said the ATA would help scientists discover more about how galaxies evolve. "This opens up a whole area in science," Blitz enthused.

The array, which will cost another $41 million to complete, will also help search for new phenomena like black holes eating each other and so-called dark galaxies without stars.

The first images based on data gleaned by the telescope battalion included radio maps of the nearby Andromeda and Triangulum Galaxies.

The project is named after Microsoft co-founder and billionaire philanthropist Paul Allen, who has donated around 25 million dollars towards the 50 million dollar venture.

Describing himself as "a child of the 50s, the golden age of space exploration and science fiction," Mr. Allen, a founder of Microsoft, said he first got interested in supporting the search ET after a conversation with the late Carl Sagan, the Cornell astronomer and populariser of science who wrote the book Contact.

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