January 28, 1995 in Nation/World

Astronomers Focus On Life Outside Earth But Opponents Decry Project As Multimillion Dollar Waste

Geoff Spencer Associated Press

The huge radio astronomy observatory sits in the outback 220 miles west of Sydney - and perhaps less than five light years away from extraterrestrial civilization.

For five months starting Thursday, scientists funded by top computer industry whizzes will use the Parkes telescope to scan billions of radio waves across the galaxy in search of extraterrestrial life on 200 stars.

The scan is part of a larger project, dubbed Project Phoenix, in which observatories around the world are focusing on 1,000 stars for at least the rest of the decade.

It will be the biggest and most systematic sweep of its kind across the southern skies. It continues the quest for proof of alien life that was begun by NASA, which had its funding cut by the deficit-conscious Congress in 1993.

Some U.S. lawmakers have dismissed the search for other beings in the universe as pointless. But SETI, the private California-based institute that has picked up where NASA left off, regards it as vital.

“It is the most important question the human species has asked itself … are we alone or are we not? Either way it’s mighty important,” said scientist Jill Tarter, one of a group of former NASA astrophysicists now with SETI, which stands for search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

The search is backed by HewlettPackard Co. co-founders David Packard and William Hewlett, Intel Corp. co-founder Gordon Moore, Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft Corp., and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke.

Most of the stars that will be watched are similar in age and size to our sun and so could have Earth-like planets capable of sustaining life, said project spokesman Seth Shostak.

The closest is about 4.5 light years from Earth; the most distant 150 light years away. A light year - the distance light travels in a vacuum in one year - equals 5.88 trillion miles.

The project’s aim is to identify artificial signals amid the deluge of natural radio waves constantly pulsing through the cosmos. Such a find could be a sign of extraterrestrial civilization, the scientists say.

“It’s like Columbus getting his sailing ships together and heading out for America,” said Kel Wellington, of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, which operates the Parkes observatory.

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