July 8, 2004

In Hunt for E.T., A Giant Leap

Peter N. Spotts argues that better technology and robust funding is the required fuel to help in the search for intelligent life beyond Earth.
For years, scientists have been listening for faint whispers of E.T. phoning anyone in electronic earshot. Now, some researchers are hearing sounds almost as exciting - the staccato of hammers, the crackle of arc welders, and the rumble of construction equipment - that signal the building of huge new telescopes to help answer an old question: Are we alone in the galaxy?

The answer to that question looms closer, thanks to boosts in funding, facilities, astronomical discoveries, and advances in technology. Researchers say within a few years they'll be able to conduct far more exhaustive searches for civilizations beyond our solar system.

The field "is in a stage of explosive growth," says Kent Cullers, director of research and development at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. "I'm not only excited, I'm ebullient."

A decade ago, the idea of searching for intelligent life drew more sneers than cheers in some circles. Congress was skeptical. NASA ended its small-scale program, leaving the search to private efforts. Now, interest is building again.

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