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Astronomers start search for alien signals from 86 planets

WASHINGTON — A massive radio telescope in rural West Virginia has begun listening for signs of alien life on 86 possible Earth-like planets, US astronomers said Friday.

The giant dish began this week pointing toward each of the 86 planets — culled from a list of 1,235 possible planets identified by NASA’s Kepler space telescope — and will gather 24 hours of data on each one.

“It’s not absolutely certain that all of these stars have habitable planetary systems, but they’re very good places to look for ET,” said University of California, Berkeley, graduate student Andrew Siemion.

The mission is part of the SETI project, which stands for Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, launched in the mid 1980s.

Last month the SETI Institute announced it was shuttering a major part of its efforts — a 50 million dollar project with 42 telescope dishes known as the Alien Telescope Array (ATA) — due to a budget shortfall.

Astronomers hope the Green Bank Telescope, a previous incarnation of which was felled in a windstorm in 1988, will provide targeted information about potential life-supporting planets, even if on a smaller scale.

“We’ve picked out the planets with nice temperatures — between zero and 100 degrees Celsius — because they are a lot more likely to harbor life,” said physicist Dan Werthimer, a veteran SETI researcher.

The project will likely take a year, and will be helped by a team of one million at-home astronomers, known as SETI@home users, who will help process the data on personal computers.

Copyright © 2011 AFP. All rights reserved.

Written by | Agence France-Presse

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