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Gservo
10th July 2003, 01:24 PM
Search for Life Out There Gains Respect, Bit by Bit
By DENNIS OVERBYE


Years after Congress ordered NASA to pull the plug on a survey looking for alien radio signals from the stars, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, as it is known to aficionados, seems to have gradually achieved a modicum of respect in the halls of Washington.

The most recent indication appeared at the end of last month, when NASA named 12 groups that had won five-year grants to participate as "lead teams" in its Astrobiology Institute, which investigates the origin and future of life in the universe.

On the list was the SETI Institute, an organization in Mountain View, Calif., that has carried on the abandoned survey.

The group proposed a variety of basic research on the way planetary environments affect life or are affected by it. One project is aimed at determining whether certain kinds of stars are promising abodes for life and thus good targets for a planned expansion of the institute's search for intelligent radio signals.

That would make the grant the first money in a decade that NASA has allocated for work related to radio searches, the astronomers at the institute said.

For most of the last decade, "SETI was a four-letter word in NASA," said Dr. Frank Drake, a radio astronomer and former chairman of the SETI Institute. "It was not uttered in speeches, or in documents."

NASA said nothing had changed. The agency does not as a rule finance ground-based astronomy and, thus, has no SETI (pronounced SEH-tee) program. But SETI research can be supported as long as it meets the strictures of good science and emerges from a competitive peer-reviewed process, explained Dr. Edward J. Weiler, associate administrator of the NASA Office of Space Science.

Dr. Michael Meyer, a biologist who heads the Astrobiology Institute, described the proposed study as "pure astronomy," aimed at looking for potential habitable planets, research that fits with the institute's mission. NASA, he added, is eager to use the results to find targets for its planned Terrestrial Planet Finder satellite.

Astronomers around SETI and elsewhere said NASA and Congress had recently shown warming attitudes toward the politically embattled subject of intelligent life Out There. Dr. Martin Rees, a cosmologist at the University of Cambridge in England, used an e-mail message to attribute the change partly to growing scientific interest in extraterrestrial biology and the origins of life, as well as, perhaps, "the growing visibility and manifest professionalism of the SETI Institute."

more here (http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/08/science/space/08SETI.html?ex=1058241600&en=22796bf4cd2b15dc&ei=5062&partner=GOOGLE)