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Our lonely planet listens again

An artist's rendering of the 32 new planets

An artist's rendering of the 32 new planets astronomers found outside our solar system, adding evidence to the theory that the universe has many places where life could develop. Credit: AP/European South Observatory

The search for intelligent extraterrestrial life is back on -- for now.

Astronomers at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., put their hunt for radio signals in the cosmos on hold in April when the project ran out of money. On Monday, institute officials said they're back in business.

That good news came as NASA confirmed that the Kepler space observatory satellite found its first "goldilocks" planet -- one just the right distance from its sun to have liquid water, potentially making it habitable by life as we know it. Kepler has also found 48 other possibilities. So it's an exciting time to resume scanning the sky for what astronomers engaged in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence call "technosignatures" of alien civilizations.

Some $200,000 in public donations -- and a new contract with the Air Force to track satellites and space junk -- are what turned the Allen Telescope Array that SETI uses back on. But it's only a temporary reprieve. The project needs about $100,000 a month to operate.

From 1994 to 2004, the institute's Center for SETI Research was financed entirely by private donations and grants, which still make up the vast majority of its funding. The federal government should cover the shortfall for this excellent adventure.

Finding a technologically advanced civilization somewhere out there in the vast universe is a long shot. But it's worth the effort to answer one of humanity's most profound questions: Are we alone?