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Hunt for alien life to expand its scope

New, stronger telescopes could examine millions of stars within a generation.

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Researching the prospects for life beyond our solar system is moving to the next level. Exoplanet hunters are getting instruments that promise to spot Earth-like planets around alien stars. In some cases, they may even yield crude estimates of how life-friendly such a planet may be.

Meanwhile, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is gaining new capacity to scan the heavens for alien signals. It could produce more analyzed data over the next two years than its researchers have collected over the past half century.

Seth Shostak, who forecast that data bonanza at a meeting at Arizona State University in Tempe earlier this month, readily admits that researchers have monitored only a tiny bit of the cosmos. A senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., Dr. Shostak explains that "we might have to search millions of star systems" to detect an alien signal. Yet, he says, "The actual number of star systems that radio SETI experiments have carefully examined is fewer than a thousand." [Editor's note: The original version misidentified Arizona State University.]

That's about to change. New systems planned or under construction, such as the SETI Institute's 42-antenna Allen Telescope array, will begin the needed millions-of-stars search. Many of these radio telescopes will be devoted to other radio astronomical missions. But they will be sensitive enough to detect leakage from radio transmissions an alien civilization may be sending domestically.


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