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Published Thursday, April 20, 2000, in the San Jose Mercury News

Dishes turn toward space in search for other life forms

Associated Press

LAFAYETTE -- With a whir of electric motors, seven dishes swung as one Wednesday, pointing blindly into space in the first demonstration of technology scientists hope will let them eavesdrop on intelligent civilizations thousands of light-years away in space.

The seven dishes are the prototype of what is being called the One Hectare Telescope, a joint project of the SETI Institute and the University of California-Berkeley that by 2005 will install as many as 1,000 of the 6-meter dishes at a 2 1/2-acre site near Mount Lassen.

The dishes, synchronized to shift together, will collect signals from space. Scientists at SETI -- Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence -- hope that once they sort out all the signals generated on this planet and from satellites circling the globe, they will hear a sound never before heard on Earth -- the sound of creatures on another planet.

The price is a relative pittance as scientific endeavors go. At a news conference in the wooded hills above this wealthy enclave 25 miles east of San Francisco, SETI Institute Executive Director Thomas Pierson set the bill at about $25 million.

``We've always wondered as a human species -- are we alone?'' he said.

``We want to build, for the first time, an instrument that takes hundreds of commercial satellite dishes and build one of the largest radio telescopes in the world,'' said Leo Blitz, director of the UC-Berkeley Radio Astronomy Laboratory.

If we succeed, ``we will have made one of the major discoveries of the common era, or we will find out how alone we really are. In either case, we will have succeeded in learning something important about our place in the universe,'' he added.

So how do the dishes do their job? While optical telescopes use mirrors or lenses to collect light to create a visible image, a radio telescope focuses faint radio waves onto a receiver, much like the one in a stereo system, which amplifies them so they are detectable.

Plans now call for the completed array to begin its search by looking at 1,000 relatively close stars similar to our sun. The project will move on later to peer first at 100,000 and then a million sun-like stars in the Milky Way galaxy, which is home to an estimated 400 billion stars.

The SETI project began 40 years ago, and for many years was funded through the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. But in 1993 Congress cut the cash flow, and SETI has been financed privately ever since.

The seven dishes, which were shown to the public for the first time Wednesday, won't be searching the heavens in earnest. Instead, they will be used to solve a variety of scientific and technical challenges linked to what scientists called the ``back end'' of the telescope. That includes developing methods for dealing with interference, especially from orbiting satellites.

Also under study will be the drive systems that aim the dishes, the software that directs the drives and early versions of a device called the digital ``beamformer,'' which will allow observation of multiple stars and other radio astronomical sources at the same time.

Once completed, it will be the largest array in the world dedicated solely to searching for signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. It will be comparable to the Very Large Array in New Mexico, the world's premier instrument for radio astronomy.

And by adding additional dishes, the array can be easily and economically expanded.

Jill C. Tartar, director of SETI research, is the scientist who was the inspiration for the Jodie Foster character in the movie ``Contact.''

``We just can't wait to get started,'' she said.

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