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Published: Sunday, 12/19/2004

E.T., long gone

Last year, a powerful radio telescope in Puerto Rico detected a signal emanating from a point in deep space between the constellations Pisces and Aries, more than 1,000 light years away. Dubbed SHGb02+14a by scientists determined to resist every ounce of poetry, the signal has been detected three times in the last year by different groups of researchers.

The six-year-old Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence team is investigating. Hundreds of amateur astronomers have joined the hunt. In the meantime, no scientist is willing to go out on a limb by insisting that the signal is artificial just yet.

Whatever SHGb02+14a is, it will have to be independently verified many times before scientists are willing to whisper that intelligent life on the other side of the galaxy is trying to get our attention.

Everyone agrees that what we've been witnessing in deep space since February, 2003, is mysterious and unprecedented. It has all of the characteristics of artificial communication, including a persistence of pattern not typically found in nature.

Maybe it is a sophisticated fraud or an echo produced by the very instruments used to search the stars for intelligent life. It might be background static from an undiscovered deep-space phenomenon.

In the event that the signal turns out to be something other than an echo from Earth, a freak of nature, or an elaborate joke, mankind will be forced to reconsider its place in the scheme of things.

In any case, the signal is over a thousand years old, so E.T., or whatever the source of the mysterious noise may be, has probably tired of waiting for a response and has moved on to other things.

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