The United States is quietly planning to launch the world's most sophisticated search for intelligent life beyond Earth.

"What we are trying to do is the equivalent of roaming through every word in the Encyclopedia Britannica, but with all the letters scrambled, and then hope we can find a `hello there' in it somewhere," says the project's chief statistician and mathematician Kent Cullers.Cullers, who is blind, is described by colleagues as a key to the $80-million, 10-year attempt to resolve the ages-old puzzle of who, if anyone, shares the universe with earthlings.

"We want to answer the overarching philosophical question: Are there other forms of life out there or are there not?" said a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) official.

"What if we find it?" asks Lynn Griffiths, NASA program manager for the project, her eyes aglow at the prospect.

In an interview, she described the 30-odd members of what NASA officially calls "The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)" project team of scientists, programmers and analysts as true believers.

What makes the space agency think it can solve this ages-old question is the invention of a super analytical computer that can sort through data at unprecedented speed.

Using an analyzer performing at the rate of 10 billion operations a second, faster than any present supercomputer, NASA plans a comprehensive search of a "quiet" band of the electromagnetic spectrum hoping to pick up signals from a distant civilization.

The project envisions placing black boxes the first one will cost some $12 million, clones about $1 million each - at key radio astronomy dishes around the world, starting at NASA's Deep Space Communications complex at Goldstone, Calif.