Scientists searching the stars for aliens are convinced an E.T. is out there - it's just that they haven't had the know-how to detect such a being.
But now technological advances have opened the way for scientists to check millions of previously unknown star systems, dramatically increasing the chances of finding intelligent life in outer space in the next 25 years, the world's largest private extraterrestrial agency believes.
"We're looking for needles in the haystack that is our galaxy, but there could be thousands of needles out there," Seth Shostak, the senior astronomer at California's non-profit Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, said.
"If that's the case, with the number of new star systems we now hope to check, we should find one of those in the next 25 years."
But Shostak, visiting Australia to attend a conference on extraterrestrial research, said detecting alien life, like the big-eyed alien in the film E.T., was only the start.
"Even if we detect life out there, we'll still know nothing about what form of life we have detected. And I doubt they'll be able - or want - to communicate with us," Mr. Shostak said.
Since it was founded in 1984, the SETI Institute has monitored radio signals, hoping to pick up a transmission from outer space. Its Project Phoenix conducts two annual three-week sessions on a radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico.
Project Phoenix, widely seen as the inspiration for the 1997 film "Contact" starring Jodie Foster, which depicted a search for life beyond earth, is the privately funded successor to an original NASA program that was cancelled in 1993 amid much skepticism by the U.S. Congress.
But the search has been slow. About 500 of 1,000 targeted stars have been examined - and no extraterrestrial transmissions have been detected.
"We do get signals all the time, but when checked out they have all been human made ... and are not from E.T., more AT&T," said Mr. Shostak.
He said the privately-funded institute was developing a giant $26-million (U.S.) telescope to start operating in 2005 that can search the stars for signals at least 100 times faster.
The so-called Allen Telescope Array, named after sponsor and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is a network of more than 350, 20-foot satellite dishes with a collecting area exceeding that of a 338-foot telescope.
The Allen array, to be built at the Hat Creek Observatory about 290 miles northeast of San Francisco, will also expand the institute's stellar reconnaissance to between 100,000 and one million nearby stars, searching 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Mr. Shostak said he is convinced there is intelligent life out there - but don't expect to find a loveable, boggle-eyed E.T.
He said if any aliens share the same carbon-based organic chemistry as humans, they would probably have a central processing system, eyes, a mouth or two, legs and some form of reproduction.
But Mr. Shostak thinks any intelligent extraterrestrial life will have gone light years beyond the intelligence of man.
"What we are more likely to hear will be so far beyond our own level that it might not be biological anymore but some artificial form of life," he said. "Don't expect a blobby, squishy alien to be on the end of the line."