Lack of money shuts down SETI search for alien life
Lacking the money to pay its operating expenses, the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., has pulled the plug on the renowned Allen Telescope Array, a field of radio dishes that scans for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations.
If E.T. phones Earth, he'll get a "disconnect" signal.
Lacking the money to pay its operating expenses, the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., has pulled the plug on the renowned Allen Telescope Array, a field of radio dishes that resemble giant dinner plates. The radio dishes in the Northern California mountains scan the skies for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations.
In a letter Friday to donors, SETI Institute Chief Executive Tom Pierson said the array last week was put into "hibernation," safe but nonfunctioning, because of inadequate government support.
The timing couldn't be worse, SETI scientists say. Astronomers this spring said 1,235 new possible planets had been observed by Kepler, a telescope on a space satellite.
Fifty or 60 of those planets appear to be about the right distance from stars to have temperatures that could make them habitable, Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the institute, said Tuesday.
"There's plenty of cosmic real estate that looks promising," he added. "We've lost the instrument that's best for zeroing in on these better targets."
The $50 million Allen Telescope Array was built by SETI and University of California, Berkeley with the help of a $30 million donation from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Operating the dishes cost about $1.5 million a year, mostly to pay for a staff of eight to 10 researchers and technicians to operate the facility.
An additional $1 million a year is needed to collect and sift data from the dishes.
The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, the billionaire's philanthropic venture, had no immediate plans to provide more funding to the facility, said David Postman, a foundation spokesman.
"I know [Allen] still hopes the work can be restarted at some point," Postman added. "We partnered with Berkeley and SETI for more than 10 years. ... We are proud of the technology that was developed ... [and] maintain hope that funding for continued operations will be found."
The SETI Institute was founded in 1984 and has received funding from NASA, the National Science Foundation, California and several other federal programs and private foundations. But the National Science Foundation and the state of California, among others, have cut funding severely.
SETI Director Jill Tarter said she hopes the Air Force will help, because the array can be used to track satellite-threatening debris in space. But budgets are tight there as well.
The SETI Institute's mission is to explore the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe. This is a profound search, institute officials believe, because it explains Earth's place among the stars.
The 42 radio dishes, on U.S. Forest Service land near Mount Lassen, had scanned deep space since 2007 for signals from alien civilizations.
Shostak compared the project's suspension to "the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria being put into dry dock. ... This is about exploration, and we want to keep the thing operational. It's no good to have it sit idle.
"We have the radio antennae up, but we can't run them without operating funds. Honestly, if everybody contributed just 3 extra cents on their 1040 tax forms, we could find out if we have cosmic company."
Despite the shutdown of the Allen Telescope Array, the search for E.T. will go on using other telescopes, such as a dish at Arecibo in Puerto Rico, the largest radio telescope in the world, Shostak said.
The difference, he said, was that SETI researchers can point the Arecibo telescope at selected sites in space for only about two weeks a year.
While the telescope in Northern California is not as powerful, it could be devoted to the search year-round.
Meanwhile, other SETI projects will continue, such as the "setiQuest Explorer" (www.setiquest.org), an application that allows citizen-scientist volunteers to look for patterns from existing data that might have been missed by existing algorithms. Through a new partnership with "Galaxy Zoo" (www.galaxyzoo.org), this project runs in real time, so discoveries can be followed up on immediately.
Seattle Times business reporter Kristi Heim contributed
to this report.
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