"The ATA's technical capabilities exponentially increase our ability to search for intelligent signals, and may lead to the discovery of thinking beings elsewhere in the universe," said Seth Shostak, an astronomer at the Seti Institute in Mountain View, California.
 
"It is the first major telescope in the world built specifically for undertaking a search for extraterrestrial intelligence," he said.
 
Larger survey
 
The newly-launched array is part of a larger group of telescopes which will eventually reach 350 in number.
 
Shostak has compared the project to the 1997 US film Contact, in which Jodie Foster plays a scientist who monitors signals from a distant civilisation.
 
"The Allen Telescope Array will be like 200 million Jodie Fosters sitting out there listening," Shostak said.
 
The project is named after Paul G. Allen, Microsoft's co-founder, who donated funding in 2001.
 
Allen joined scientists from Seti and Berkeley on Thursday to launch the telescopes, which are able to monitor radio waves emitted by objects in space.
 
The readings from the telescopes will allow scientists to compose an impression of astronomical bodies at distances not possible by more conventional telescopes.
 
"They're like souped-up, old-style TV dishes that, gathered together using state-of-the-art electronics and computing, create a very powerful and flexible radio telescope," Allen told the Seattle Post Intelligencer.
 
"Seti is the long-shot of long shots, but we can also use this for regular radio astronomy."