Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Takes a New Tack

NASA'S search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is dead. Long live Project Phoenix.

Congress killed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration program last October as a ``waste'' of public money. But its essential features will continue by popular demand.

The SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., reports that contributors have already donated $4.4 million for that purpose. That's more than half way toward the $7.3 million the institute needs to carry Project Phoenix through at least the middle of next year. Given this initial success, the institute will likely be able to raise the money to continue the project.

NASA's canceled program involved a ``targeted'' search of 1,000 close-by sun-like stars plus an all sky survey over the full range of microwave radio frequencies. But there's more to SETI than listening for alien radio signals.

The subject provides a focus for educational programs that combine aspects of astronomy, biology, chemistry, and communications and computer science for students from grade school through university levels. It also sets a tough technical goal that has inspired important developments in radio technology and information processing.

These benefits come at a low cost, as government-funded science goes. NASA's program was authorized as a 10-year $10-million-per-year effort. NASA launched the targeted search Oct. 12, 1992 (Columbus Day) with equipment at the 1,000-foot-diameter radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Arecibo had studied the first two dozen of the 1,000 targeted stars by last October. The 110-foot antenna at NASA's Deep Space Tracking Network site in Goldstone, Calif., had also been devoting 30 hours a week to the all-sky survey.

It took a number of years of effort and $58 million to develop the radio equipment. It was a waste of taxpayer money to kill this program when its productive phase was barely under way. Happily, the technology will be saved and refined and the search continued in Project Phoenix. This technology - with its ability to screen out Earth-based radio interference while listening for cosmic signals on millions of channels at once - is useful in radio astronomy generally. NASA tried to emphasize this when it renamed its program the High Resolution Microwave Survey to counter the ridicule of congressional critics.

Project Phoenix isn't the only SETI game in town. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, for example, are upgrading their SERENDIP project. This uses radio receivers that piggyback on radio telescopes, listening for alien signals while radio astronomers do their regular work. Also, the Planetary Society's program using a radio telescope at Harvard, Mass., is upgrading its equipment in a continuing full-time SETI effort.

Project Phoenix will complement such surveys, starting with a targeted search of selected stars using a Parkes Observatory radio telescope in New South Wales, Australia.

Last fall, Steven Dick, NASA's SETI program historian observed that ``even Congress can't stifle'' basic human curiosity. He added that ``one way or another, SETI will be back.''

He was right.

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