updated 9/8/2004 9:27:44 PM ET 2004-09-09T01:27:44

The radio telescope at Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory is starting a years-long project to map the night sky, scientists say.

The radio telescope, a listening device that is powerful enough to hear planets forming several billion lights years away, received six more radio receivers to expand its range.

The $1 million upgrade, nicknamed the ALFA project, was completed a few weeks ago, and 12 scientists are to begin using the telescope Friday to map the sky for future generations, said Dan Werthimer, an astronomer from the University of Colorado at Berkeley.

Arecibo expects to find thousands of new pulsars, supernovas, black holes and planets.

The map, with its collection of detailed data about location, identity and properties of what is in space, will go far beyond anything currently in use, researchers say. No such map has been made until now because the telescope had a limited field of view.

"The new upgrade is like having seven Arecibo observatories at once," Werthimer said. "You can see seven different parts of the galaxy simultaneously. The mapping will be seven times faster."

The mapping could be completed in a few months if the observatory devoted all of its telescope hours to the ALFA project, said Sixto Gonzalez, observatory director. However, the process is likely to take at least two years to allow other astronomers to work on other projects, such as searching for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, he said.

ALFA, which stands for the Arecibo L-Band Feed Array, discovered its first pulsar last month during a test run, Gonzalez said.

The 1,000-foot-wide (305-meter-wide) parabolic receiver — composed of 38,000 aluminum tiles — allows researchers to listen to sounds in space instead of depending on optics, like the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope.

The information gathered will be compiled in a worldwide database scientists can access on the Internet, scientists say.

The observatory and its gargantuan dish were built in 1963 by the Department of Defense. It is now run by Cornell University under the National Foundation of Science.

The telescope's 1974 discovery of a twin neutron stars won a pair of scientists the Nobel Prize in 1993 by proving Albert Einstein's theory of gravity waves. Other finds include ice on Mercury and the first known planets outside our solar system.

The dish is best-known for its cameo appearances in such films as "Contact" and the James Bond adventure "GoldenEye" — and for its role in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, even though that class of research takes up less than 1 percent of the telescope's time.

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