Search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe saved by private donors

January 16, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The most sweeping search ever for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe will continue -- this time with funding from some of the country's wealthiest high-tech entrepreneurs.

In the three months since Congress abruptly ended NASA's search of the heavens, scientists at the non-profit, private SETI Institute in Mountain View have raised $4.4 million from private donors, including the founders of the Hewlett-Packard Co., Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp. SETI stands for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

"The private support reaffirms the importance of SETI," said Frank Drake, the institute's president. "I look forward to a day, perhaps not far off, when we hear the first evidence proving we are not alone in the universe."

SETI scientists will use radio telescopes in Australia and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's sophisticated digital receivers to try to discover signals from other civilizations in the galaxy.

"There's a very high probability that there are more solar systems like ours, which could generate life like ours," said Hewlett-Packard founder David Packard, a donor. "There is probably no practical commercial benefit whatsoever. Nevertheless, I think it's important to know as much about the universe as we can."

NASA had spent $60 million on the hunt for life, including $30 million to develop its digital receivers in anticipation of a 10-year search. But in its first year, vocal senators, including one who called the search "a great Martian chase," swayed Congress to kill the program.

About 10 SETI scientists will now use NASA's equipment to continue that 10-year search on a smaller scale. Before Congress cut the search's $12.3 million annual budget, about 60 scientists had worked on the project in Mountain View, Calif., and at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

In what SETI now calls the Phoenix Project, scientists will train radio telescopes on 1,000 of the closest stars that most resemble the sun. The institute won't continue the search started by the Jet Propulsion Lab, where scientists had been scanning the entire heavens for signals.

"It means we'll have to search longer to succeed," Mr. Drake said. "I think we have a good chance of succeeding by the turn of the century."

The five major donors are Mr. Packard and William R. Hewlett of Hewlett-Packard; Gordon Moore, co-founder and chairman of Intel; a donor who wished to remain anonymous; and Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder who also is founder of the Seattle-based Asymetrix Corp.

SETI scientists must move quickly. The increasing use of cellular phones and the satellites that relay the phones' signals could wreak havoc on the search, they said.

"They can drown out anything we're listening for across the light-years," Bernard M. Oliver of SETI said. "That's why we're so eager to keep the program rolling."

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