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Low-Cost SETI Program Promises Awesome Discoveries

SPACE aliens take heart. Buried in the 1991 United States budget is $12.1 million for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). It had looked as though the project would fold when a sparsely attended meeting of the House of Representatives cut the funds last June. Several members had ridiculed what one of them called a quest ``for little green men with misshapen heads.''

But, thanks to more sensible deliberations in the Senate and, later, in the House - plus vigorous lobbying by SETI proponents - the NASA budget bill sent to the President had full SETI funding.

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Thus NASA's low-cost but scientifically ambitious program continues toward its 1992 debut. It plans to listen for signs of alien activity across a wide range of the microwave spectrum (1,000 to 10,000 megahertz) and all over the sky. But there undoubtedly are those who still wonder if public money should be spent on such research.

Considering other demands on the national budget, is SETI really just a trivial hobby for deluded romantics? It's hard to believe it is, considering its scientific and popular interest. The International Astronomical Union considers SETI an important aspect of modern astronomy. Several other nations have SETI programs under way. As for public interest, the Planetary Society has raised enough private money to maintain the largest SETI program now running.

There are two major reasons for supporting this research.

First, it is an effort to develop important scientific knowledge. People have wondered for millennia if we are alone in the universe. Now, for the first time, the search for an answer can go beyond philosophical speculation and religious dogma. We are gaining the means to pursue the search scientifically. And radio technology is one of the best tools available.

Second, SETI research encourages development of sophisticated means for detecting and analyzing microwave emissions. The new technology can be useful for many purposes. SETI also provides interesting research projects for science and engineering students.

The report of the Senate independent agencies committee that restored SETI funding recognizes this. It notes, ``While this speculative venture stimulates widespread interest and imagination, the Committee's recommendation is based on its assessment of the technical and engineering advances associated with the development of the monitoring devices ... and on the broad educational component of the program.''

The Planetary Society's project, called META for ``Megachannel Extraterrestrial Assay,'' uses receivers that listen on 8.4 million very narrow radio-frequency channels at once.

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There are two installations - one at the Harvard-Smithsonian Oak Ridge Observatory west of Boston and one at Argentina's Institute for Radioastronomy near Buenos Aires.

NASA's Microwave Observing Project will be 300 times more sensitive. Its receivers will be able to monitor 20 million separate radio channels a second. They will cover the microwave range at frequencies just above commercial usage and our galaxy's natural noise and just below atmospheric interference. Attached to existing radio telescopes, which will also carry on their regular work, this will be the most powerful SETI system yet mounted.

As low-cost science goes, this is a good public investment. There are immediate educational and technical returns. And the ultimate scientific payoff could be one of the most awesome discoveries ever made.