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For about a week in 1960, radio astronomer Frank Drake thought he might have discovered aliens.

He had pointed the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s new 26-meter telescope at the star Epsilon Eridani on April 8 of that year, and within minutes, the instruments went wild. The telescope’s readout device, a chart recorder that used a pen to scratch out signatures of incoming signals on paper, scribbled erratically. A speaker connected to the telescope blared a train of strong pulses — just the kind of transmission expected from an intelligent sender. Drake was stunned. Could finding E.T. really be this easy?

It wasn’t. When the telescope found the signal again several days later, a radio antenna pointed in different direction also picked up the noise. The signal wasn’t otherworldly at all; it was coming from an earthly source, like an airplane.

Drake never picked up any interstellar broadcasts during his two months observing Epsilon Eridani and another sunlike star, Tau Ceti, with the radio telescope in West Virginia (SN: 4/30/60). But that first foray into the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, sparked a growing field of efforts to scout out fellow intelligent creatures among the stars. And now, with recent discoveries in astronomy, new technologies and a flush of new money, SETI is in renaissance.

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Category: Science