In an Australian sheep pasture, U.S. researchers are working day and night to prepare for the most sweeping search ever for intelligent life outside the Earth.
Using the huge Parkes radio telescope in New South Wales, Australia, the group from the SETI Institute of Mountain View, Calif., will begin to listen tomorrow for cosmic conversation between aliens.
The scientists take pains not to promise too much in their search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which they abbreviate as SETI. But they declare proudly that this search is far more advanced than any to date.
"We could have success at any step," said SETI physicist John Dreher. "But we're prepared for the long journey. It might take a decade. It might take a century."
During the five-month experiment known as Project Phoenix, scientists will use the 210-foot-diameter Parkes antenna -- the largest in the Southern Hemisphere -- to eavesdrop on the areas of 200 nearby stars. Because those stars are similar to our sun, they are more likely than most to have a planet like Earth circling them.
Researchers will listen for signals that intelligent beings may have sent our way, said SETI scientist Seth Shostak, or for signals that might have escaped inadvertently, much like "the sounds of 'I Love Lucy' come off the Earth."
Although searches for cosmic radio signals began 35 years ago, Project Phoenix uses equipment that can search 28 million channels -- three times as many as the last search, said SETI President Frank Drake, who carried out the first such experiment in 1960. Scientists now can check out any unusual signal immediately. Before, scientists gathered sounds and analyzed the data later.
"This experiment is thousands to a million times better in the technical sense than previous experiments have been," said Dr. Shostak, an astrophysicist. "Will we hear something before the millennium? Yes, I think we will."
Project Phoenix is a smaller version of a 10-year NASA program that was canceled by Congress in 1993 after one senator called it the "great Martian chase."
Researchers plan to complete the survey at Parkes, a town about 250 miles west of Sydney, in June. Then they will move to radio telescopes in the Northern Hemisphere, where they plan to look at 1,000 stars by the year 2000.
"We can't just sit here and wait for them to arrive in their shiny spacecraft," said Dr. Dreher. "That's not going to happen."