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Three million enlisted in search for smart aliens

(CNN) -- When Bern Ziegler was told he was the 3 millionth user of a screen saver that doubles as a program to look for intelligent aliens, the German physicist thought it was a joke.

"Is this a hoax?" was his surprised reaction to the news. The Planetary Society, which awarded Ziegler prizes for his lucky timing, assured him this week that it was not.

The society-sponsored SETI@home program, the largest distributed computer experiment ever, reached the milestone only two years after its debut. The screen saver harnesses the spare computing power of PCs hooked up to the Internet to crunch data from the radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

The Arecibo instrument, the largest of its kind in the world, devotes much its observational time to scanning the heavens for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Want to take part in the search? Hurry and sign up before SETI@home surpasses the 4 million mark. Check out the Seti@home Web site:

Space plane prototype completes test flight

(CNN) -- An unmanned NASA experimental craft successfully completed a crucial test flight this week, paving the way for the development of a reusable space plane.

The free-fall excursion was the sixth for the X-40A vehicle, a slightly smaller scale model of the proposed X-37, which NASA hopes will someday launch from the space shuttle and return to Earth like an airplane.

After dropping from an Army helicopter at an altitude of 14,992 feet (4,570 meters), the Boeing-built X-40A reached a speed of almost 300 mph (415 km/h) before rolling to a stop at a landing strip near Edwards, California.

The X-37 program is part of NASA's effort to move to reusable launch vehicles. NASA hopes to reduce the cost of sending cargo into orbit to one-tenth the current cost.

Earlier this year, NASA killed the problem-plagued X-33 program, which was planned to replace the aging space shuttle fleet with a low-cost successor.

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