Message to ET: don't call us, we're off the air

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ET - if you are out there - don't bother phoning us because we've had our telephone disconnected.

The harsh realities of a recessionary world have caught up with the United States space agency's starry- eyed project to make contact with extra-terrestial lifeforms. A US senator has successfully convinced a congressional committee to close down a multi-million dollar Nasa programme to detect 'intelligent' signals from outer space.

Senator Richard Bryan called Nasa's Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (Seti) a 'great Martian chase' that was a waste of taxpayers' money. 'We have yet to bag a single little green fellow,' he told colleagues.

The Seti project, launched a year ago, has used some of the world's most sophisticated radio telescopes to scan the heavens for faint radio signals carrying the tell- tale signature of intelligent life, which is most likely to be a continuous monotone in a frequency range of one to three gigahertz.

'We've already spent millions on this project and no one has landed and said 'Take me to your leader' and no flying saucers have applied for flight clearance,' said Jim Mulhall, press secretary for the Nevada Democrat senator.

Nasa is understandably annoyed at having its telephone cut off. 'We're not studying little green men or big blue women,' said John Rummel, a programme scientist for Seti. 'We're studying the physical phenomena that could be the signals of intelligent life in space.'

He said that the growth of commercial microwave signals from terrestrial sources over the next few decades means that reinstating the Seti project in future years will be impossible. 'There will be too much radiofrequency interference which will mask any faint extraterrestial signals,' he said.

Frank Drake, the eminent US astronomer who first suggested the possibility of looking for ET signals, said the decision not to provide the dollars 12m ( pounds 7.9m) needed to fund the project was a 'sad commentary on the state of the American government'.

Nasa said that stopping the project will put about 50 scientists out of a job. 'It's upsetting to have the whole thing yanked out from under us and for purely political reasons,' said Mr Drake.