E.T., Phone Earth

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence goes on, at private expense.


On Columbis Day 1992, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched a much-expanded Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), an attempt to locate civilizations on other planets by picking up their radio signals. A year later, looking for some token budget cuts, Congress voted to eliminate SETI. But the program lives on as Project Phoenix, run by the SETI Institute, a private, non-profit foundation in Mountain View, California.

SETI uses huge radio antennas, sophisticated digital receivers, and computers to scan the radio-frequency spectrum in an attempt to detect non-random signals. The detection of such patterns would indicate the existence of a technically advanced civilization. The program was interrupted less than a year into its expected 10-year life when Congress eliminated its $12.3-million annual budget.

Within three months, the SETI Institute had raised $4.4 million–more than half of the $7.3 million needed to keep the project on schedule through mid-1995. Among the major donors (in the million-dollar range) are David Packard and William Hewlett of the Hewlett-Packard Corporation; Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft and founder, chairman, and CEO of Asymetrix Corporation; and Gordon Moore, co-founder and chairman of the board of Intel Corporation.

Science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke also donated money for a public-awareness campaign about the project in England. "An international funding base for SETI is appropriate," says astrophysicist Jill Tarter, Phoenix Project manager. "A signal will have been sent to planet Earth and not just to the USA." Once the initial goal has been met, the SETI Institute will continue its fund raising to provide the $3 million needed annually for the project's scheduled decade-long run.

Because many of the project's target stars are best observed from the Southern Hemisphere, Project Phoenix will first be operated at the Parkes radio observatory in New South Wales, Australia, in early 1995. (SETI scientists need the time between now and then to upgrade the digital receiving instruments developed by NASA.) The project will then return to observatories in the Northern Hemisphere–first to the largest radio telescope in the world, the 1,000-foot-diameter telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.