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Extraterrestrial Intelligence

How will we respond to a signal from outer space?
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Fifty years ago a young astronomer, indulging in a bit of interstellar voyeurism, turned a telescope on the neighbors to see what he could see. In April 1960 at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, W.Va., Frank Drake, then 29, trained a 26-meter-wide radio telescope on two nearby stars to seek out transmissions from civilizations possibly in residence there. The search came up empty, but Drake’s Project Ozma began in earnest the ongoing search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI.

Drake, who turned 80 in May, is still at it, directing the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe at the nonprofit SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. Instead of just borrowing time from other astronomical instruments, those in the field now have purpose-built tools at their disposal, such as the fledgling Allen Telescope Array (ATA) in Hat Creek, Calif. But funding is scarce—the ATA growth stalled at 42 dishes of a planned 350—and astronomers have not yet gathered enough data to make firm pronouncements about intelligent life in the universe.

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