Huge New Telescope to Boost Hunt for Alien Life
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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - With millions of dollars in funding pledged by two of the men behind software giant Microsoft, the search for intelligent life on other planets got a big boost Tuesday as officials unveiled plans for a massive new telescope to scan the skies.
The Allen Telescope Array named for Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen, who put up $11.5 million for the project will be ``the world's most powerful instrument designed to seek out signals from civilizations elsewhere in our galaxy,'' the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute said.
Joining Allen in funding the project was former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold, who contributed $1 million toward the total of $26 million needed to build the field of hundreds of linked radio telescope dishes in northern California.
``While the best scientific estimates tell us the probability of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is fairly high, there is great uncertainty and some controversy in the calculation,'' Myhrvold said in a statement.
``One thing however, is beyond dispute. That is, if we don't continue supporting projects like the Allen Telescope Array, our chances of discovery will remain at zero.''
Plans for the telescope mark a turning point for the SETI Institute ( http://www.seti.org ), the Silicon Valley-based nonprofit body which is the world's largest private organization devoted to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
The institute's Project Phoenix, which spends more than $4 million a year to buy time on large radio telescopes, is widely held to be the inspiration for the 1997 film ``Contact'' starring Jodie Foster.
But institute researchers have never before had their own installation devoted exclusively to hunting down signals from alien worlds.
``We're overjoyed, and we're ready to move ahead,'' the institute's director of research Jill Tarter said. ``Paul and Nathan have understood from the beginning how exciting and groundbreaking this telescope could be. They have contributed time and ideas to our work, and now they are quite literally giving us the means to make it happen.''
The telescope, which will be jointly administered by the University of California-Berkeley, will be situated about 290 miles (464 km) north of San Francisco at the university's Hat Creek Observatory a remote site that is ``radio quiet'' with little static or man-made interference.
Astronomers hope the new telescope will be an important new tool in the hunt for alien life, which has been going on for more than four decades.
While researchers have carefully screened records of extraterrestrial radio emissions, they have yet to come up with a signal displaying a pattern that could clearly indicate it was produced by intelligent life.
The Allen project will differ significantly from radio telescopes currently in use.
Unlike mammoth dishes such as the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, the Allen Array will be constructed from between 500 to 1,000 small, mass-produced dishes resembling those used for home satellite television reception.
``They are going to be single, backyard style dishes, arrayed together in a field,'' said Greg Klerkx, the SETI Institute's director of development. ``It will be a lot of small dishes, but their signals will be electronically linked to form one picture of the stars.''
Klerkx said project astronomers were starting to develop a list of ``target'' stars for observation focusing on those suns which most resemble our own Solar system and are closest to us as the best possible chance for discovering nearby intelligent life.
The new telescope will incorporate miniaturized electronics as well as large amounts of affordable computer processing, which will enable it to look at up to a dozen candidate star systems simultaneously, scientists say.
It should also prove useful for traditional research in radio astronomy, enabling scientists to look more closely at interstellar chemistry, the structure of galactic magnetic fields and the physics of rotating neutron stars.
SETI Institute officials hope to have a large-scale prototype of the new telescope ready by 2003 and to push the project quickly toward completion, with the full telescope scheduled to become operational in 2005.
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