Astronomers who are searching for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence are studying over 150 radio transmissions that have reached Earth. Using a huge network of home computers, SETI has found millions of strong radio signals since 1999. On March 18, they plan to spend 24 hours on the Arecibo radio telescope to check out those considered most likely to be radio broadcasts from alien civilizations. If they do pick up a transmission, says Dan Werthimer, chief scientist for the project, “we would be hopping around and calling telescopes in England and in Germany,” since they would need independent confirmation “to make sure it isn’t a bug in the software or a graduate student playing a prank” before making an announcement.

Four million people have joined SETI@home since it was launched in 1999. The program sifts through the gathered data to look for any signals that stand out from the background static and SETI is notified whenever a signal comes in that appears to have been emitted from a single point, such as a planet. Such signals last about 12 seconds and have a “bell curve” shape. Over 350 million such signals have been spotted, but in the 24 hours available to them, the astronomers will be able to check out only 150 of the possible ET signals.

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