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Budget crunch mothballs telescopes built to search for alien signals

The Allen Telescope Array in Hat Creek, CaliforniaThe hunt for extraterrestrial life just lost one of its best tools. The Allen Telescope Array (ATA), a field of radio dishes in rural northern California built to seek out transmissions from distant alien civilizations, has been shuttered, at least temporarily, as its operators scramble to find a way to continue to fund it.

In an April 22 letter to donors, Tom Pierson, CEO of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., explained that the ATA has been put into "hibernation," meaning that "starting this week, the equipment is unavailable for normal observations and is being maintained in a safe state by a significantly reduced staff." The ATA is a partnership between the SETI Institute, which is responsible for building the telescope array, and the University of California, Berkeley, which is responsible for operating it. Astronomer Franck Marchis, who is affiliated with both institutions, broke the news on his blog April 22.

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence—SETI for short—is hardly fringe science, but the field has not enjoyed the financial support available to disciplines that return more immediate, predictable benefits to society. The nonprofit SETI Institute was founded in 1984 and has mostly relied on private donations to support its research. NASA had bankrolled a number of early SETI Institute projects, but Congress canceled NASA's short-lived SETI program in 1993.

The plans for the ATA called for a total of 350 individual six-meter radio antennas, all working in concert to detect radio emissions from civilizations that might exist elsewhere in the galaxy. But the array's growth stalled after the first phase of construction in 2007, when 42 dishes were completed at a cost of $50 million. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the telescope array's billionaire namesake, contributed half of that sum, according to the SETI Institute.

Funding is considerably scarcer now. U.C. Berkeley's Radio Astronomy Laboratory has relied on funds from the National Science Foundation and the state of California to operate the Hat Creek Radio Observatory (HCRO) where the ATA is based, Pierson explained in his letter, and both of those sources have dried up. "NSF University Radio Observatory funding for HCRO has been reduced to approximately one-tenth of its former sum," Pierson wrote. "This is compounded by growing State of California budget shortfalls that have severely reduced the amount of state funds available to the Radio Astronomy Lab." ATA operations cost about $1.5 million per year, Pierson said, and the SETI science campaign at ATA costs another $1 million annually.

The SETI Institute would like to use the ATA to listen in on any radio waves that might be emanating from the extrasolar planets now being found by NASA's Kepler spacecraft. In February, Kepler scientists announced that they had compiled a list of 1,235 possible planets orbiting distant stars, including several that might be habitable. A current SETI Institute fundraising campaign is now aimed at raising $5 million to conduct a two-year search of Kepler's most promising finds using the ATA, in the hopes that one of those worlds is inhabited by a technological civilization sending out radio waves.

The ATA is not the only radio telescope facility that can be used for SETI searches, but it is probably the instrument most committed to the task. SETI researchers elsewhere have to borrow time on telescopes where competition for observing time can be fierce or piggyback their searches on other ongoing observations.

Pierson said that the SETI Institute has been working for more than two years to find a new funding stream, for instance by offering up the ATA's services to the U.S. Air Force to assist in tracking orbital debris that can endanger defense satellites. "We are continuing discussions with the USAF and remain hopeful that this effort will help provide future operating funds," he wrote.

ATA photo: SETI Institute

Tags: SETI, radio astronomy
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  1. 1. letxequalx 11:06 AM 4/24/11

    cut the budget for SETI? We should increase it. It's not like we are finding any answers to our problems locally.

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  2. 2. syhprum1 11:30 AM 4/24/11

    The answer is to drop a hint to the military that it would be useful to detect missiles from rouge nations like Iran,N Korea,west Libya etc.
    A billion dollars is chicken feed to the military.

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  3. 3. cardshoot 01:46 PM 4/24/11

    They should set up a web site for donations if they don't have one set up. If they do they have one then get the address out to people so people can donate.
    If they made it simple to donate with a charge card and made it a monthly charge for a limited time(Ex. $5.00 each month for 6 months)and make the amount donor entered in whole dolar amounts and length selectable from several options(once, two months, three months, 6, months, 1 year, __ years)they might get enough donations to stay up and running. And giving out some incentives for donating wouldn't hurt. T-shirts and coffee mugs, hats and such with some slogan such as "I support SETI" or even offer a choice of several slogans for certain levels of donation.
    And optionable automatic twitter, e-mail, and Facebook reminders could be ofered to be sent out to a donor when the donation period ends.

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  4. 4. marco-sum 02:21 PM 4/24/11

    It's sad to see that the SETTI research has been so neglected just because of a few million dollars that isn't too much for billionaires and big companies, although the military aid might work, specially if they find some new way to kill people using it.

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  5. 5. jtdwyer 05:06 PM 4/24/11

    Anyone wishing to contribute is more than welcome. I would much prefer my tax funds be spent on some other useless projects that might employ more useless people.

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  6. 6. Torbj�rn Larsson, OM 08:38 PM 4/24/11

    @ jtdwyer: "some other useless projects"

    This isn't useless. It is an old question, the answer would help in astrobiology and ultimately another old question ie how life formed, and the technique is reasonable.

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  7. 7. jtdwyer in reply to Torbj�rn Larsson, OM 10:06 PM 4/24/11

    The window for some other technological life to detect our own EM emissions has effectively been open for less than 100 years - how long are we going to last?

    To find technological life that mirrored our own development schedule would require that they be no more than about 100 light years away. Most planets don't in any way resemble Earth, even within our own Solar system.

    I'm far more interested in whether intelligent life will comfortably persist on Earth 100 years from now. Not many are even aware that the human population has quadrupled since 1900 and will soon have tripled since 1950. If we can't comprehend what our expansion is doing to the planet, including the depletion of the resources necessary for our survival, no technological life will ever detect anything more than the faint echo of our past existence. Best wishes to all...

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  8. 8. Andromedabv 11:15 PM 4/24/11

    How can anyone justify the use of tax dollars on a program designed to listen to space static because they think they will receive a message from space aliens mixed into the static? I'm sorry if some people think this program is important, but maybe it's time to prioritize things a bit better. ET's messages can wait until the economy stabilizes. If the government made more strides in creating jobs, and decreasing public assistance, then you can justify spending money on SETI.
    Maybe there is life on other planets, and maybe they've been around longer than us, and are infinitly more intelligent, but if that's the case, they would be smart enough to stay away from us.

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  9. 9. RoeDeVasto 01:01 AM 4/25/11

    PLEASE help fund the search. http://www.seti.org/keplerworlds

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  10. 10. RoeDeVasto 01:06 AM 4/25/11

    you can help! http://www.seti.org/keplerworlds

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  11. 11. ScienceBuff 03:30 AM 4/25/11

    It's about time. I cannot think of *anything* I was more shocked at find out that taxpayer dollars were funding than on searching for so-called extraterrestrial life. What an unbelieveable waste of taxpayer monies and resources. If people want to do such a thing then let them use *their own* time and money - please, please don't let them waste my hard-earned tax dollars on something as useless and vain as this.

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  12. 12. ScienceBuff 03:33 AM 4/25/11

    Typo correction/rephrasing - "I cannot think of *anything* I was more shocked at with respect to tax dollars being spent on than I was at finding out some time ago that taxpayer dollars were funding searching for so-called extraterrestrial life."

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  13. 13. umesh 05:14 AM 4/25/11

    why not make it a complete ppl project follow the way of the wiki chk out number of active users http://seticlassic.ssl.berkeley.edu/numusers.html the project would be up and running in no time.

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  14. 14. stew6302 09:48 AM 4/25/11

    We already received messages from others. Has anyone bothered to check out the crop circles or is that too simple and cheap. Nostradamus said they are from the " gray birds" . We all know those bird brains are smarter than politicians.

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  15. 15. b_zachary 02:36 PM 4/25/11

    Every day, we come closer to that instant of unforgivable neglect. :\

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  16. 16. lbartlett66 03:36 PM 4/25/11

    https://www.seti.org/donate

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  17. 17. colinnwn 04:33 PM 4/25/11

    This is some really poor reporting by SA. It makes it sound like the ATA is only beneficial in SETI observations. It is true the ATA was jointly designed by the SETI Institute AND the Radio Astronomy Lab at UC Berkeley.

    In an effort to get and maintain funding, it was specifically designed to first be an excellent, easily upgradeable, and very cheap radio telescope for traditional radio astronomy observations, and SECONDLY to allow SETI to piggyback on the same observations. RAL and SETI have an agreement that specifically states that normal astonomical observations will decide where they point the telescope array so SETI observations don't interfere with its more traditional operations.

    At this point SETI is almost an irrelevant side project for the ATA. It should be maintained and funded (by the US government if necessary) for all the more typical and valid science it can do extremely affordably.

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  18. 18. DeanCSmith 05:09 PM 4/25/11

    Maybe Tomorrow

    http://vimeo.com/1088902

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  19. 19. karagi 07:09 PM 4/25/11

    The short-sightedness of some who would prefer to save the pittance that this program costs is what astounds me.

    With more stars in the Universe than grains of sand on the beaches of earth, the probability of life elsewhere is very high. Detecting it, though, is very difficult.

    But, imagine the impact on humanity to discover that we are not alone, that other civilizations have survived.
    Beyond any scientific information we may learn from these civilizations, just the knowledge that they exist would alter our perceptions of religions and the divisions that prevent us from uniting as one humanity.

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  20. 20. tomstockmail in reply to jtdwyer 08:00 PM 4/25/11

    "To find technological life that mirrored our own development schedule would require that they be no more than about 100 light years away."

    Are you kidding or stupid?

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  21. 21. ScienceBuff in reply to karagi 10:05 PM 4/25/11

    "The short-sightedness of some who would prefer to save the pittance that this program costs is what astounds me."

    I strongly beg to differ. What's astoundingly short-sighted is people insisting on chasing Yeti's, Loch Ness Monsters, pyramid-building UFOs, ghosts and alleged extra-terrestrials at taxpayer expense. With not one shred of reliable evidence anywhere that such a thing exists. Unless that's how they think crop circles got here. Or thinking that just because there are lots of stars out there that the probability of life is very high. The complexity of life as we know it makes that very unlikely indeed.

    And thinking that somehow finding non-existent aliens will change human nature and make everyone get along, guess again. It's not religions dividing people, it's human nature itself. People dividing and mistreating one another starts with *two* people, actually with *one* person -- not with religions, philosophies or political parties. You name *any* group or affiliation, and you'll see people divided and mistreating each other. Even within their own families. Thinking that seeing a non-existent ET will clear up all that, now that is short-sighted indeed. SETI is good tax money - however little - that absolutely belongs elsewhere.

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  22. 22. Tropical fish 04:05 AM 4/26/11

    Oh my lady gaga ,I can understand no word&My dear English, I have to give up

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  23. 23. AffordableWebDesign 05:31 AM 4/26/11

    I would like to offer IT services at no cost, is that possible?

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  24. 24. karagi in reply to ScienceBuff 07:13 PM 4/26/11

    ScienceBuff, first of all searching for life in the universe is not the same thing as chasing Yeti's. Knowledgeable scientists have made credible estimates and determined the odds are high.

    Throughout history, as much as we thought we were unique, we eventually learned we're not. The sun doesn't revolve around us, the sun itself is quite ordinary, our location in the galaxy is not exceptional nor is our galaxy, our planet doesn't have any special ingredients found nowhere else, etc... And, as I said before, with the mind boggling number of stars and planets and the billions of years available, why would you think that life developing only on Earth is even a credible proposition? (I suppose you feel exploring for current or past life on Mars is also a waste of money.)

    Luckily for humanity there have been people throughout history that ignored sentiments like yours, that took a chance and went on to discover knowledge that has allowed civilization to progress.

    Secondly, I said that finding other life would alter our perceptions on religions and humanity's divisions. I didn't say that it would suddenly make us all hold hands and sing Kumbaya. Human nature may not have fundamentally changed but we've come a long way from the time when we didn't have laws and brute violence was the everyday norm. We've learned to control our nature to a great extent and scientific progress has been a key reason.

    Just look at the effect satellites have had by allowing us to view the earth and ourselves as a whole and by giving us unprecedented abilities to communicate. People are slowly progressing to a worldview that transcends national boundaries and have begun working together more and more on global environmental, political and humanitarian issues. I believe finding other life will only accelerate that trend.

    Lastly, even if you think the chances of finding anything are slim, we're talking less money than the cost of paving another mile of highway. If you really are a "Science Buff" you'd want to at least try to find the truth instead of dismissing it out of hand when we have just begun searching.

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  25. 25. UFO Guy 10:08 PM 4/26/11

    I like Setti however after 60 years Nothing.
    There are visual sightings every day or night.
    I use infra-Red video with sound.
    There is never a guess.

    http://ufochaser.us

    The UFO Guy

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