All ears at Harvard for extra-terrestrials

If ET should phone home today, scientists at Harvard University in the United States have a billion electronic ears ready to listen in to his conversation.

At the Oak Ridge Observatory in Harvard, Massachusetts, the Planetary Society of the USA, a group supported by, among others, Steven Spielberg, the creator of the fictional film ET, yesterday inaugurated the second phase of its search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Paul Horowitz, from Harvard University's Physics Department has hooked up a supersensitive detector to the Observatory's 26m (84ft) radio-telescope.

Called Project BETA, for Billion-channel Extra Terrestrial Assay, it divides the radio signals coming into the telescope into a billion channels and scans each one for any distinctive pattern which might indicate signals coming from life forms beyond our own solar system. It is not so much a search, more of an eavesdrop, for extra-terrestrial life.

Dr Horowitz said yesterday that BETA could reach "out to the nearest 1,000 stars or, depending on the advancement of the civilisation, it could survey to the rest of the galaxy".

Steven Spielberg has not contributed directly to BETA, which has been funded by the ordinary members of the Planetary Society, according to Dr Horowitz, but Spielberg did give financial support to its predecessor, META, and contributed $100,000 to the society shortly after ET was released.

Dr Jacqueline Mitton of the Royal Astronomical Society in Britain said: "On a statistical basis, it's reasonable to assume that somewhere, there will be stars with planets circling them capable of supporting life. Many astronomers would presume there is likely to be life rather than us on Earth being unique."

Dr Mitton said that to spend a little money on the search for life beyond our solar system "seems to be a respectable scientific thing to do". However, the schemes for detecting life were speculative, she thought.

In addition to listening to cosmic whispers with a radio- telescope, some researchers believed that it might be possible to look for planets around other stars and put the faint radiation coming from them through a spectroscope to see if there was the "chemical signature of a life-supporting environment".

If the search succeeded, Dr Mitton pointed out, and if proof was found of other intelligence beyond the stars, "it would be one of the biggest scientific discoveries of all time".