Budget Woes Put SETI’s Allen Telescope Array into “Hibernation”

by Nancy Atkinson on April 25, 2011

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Allen Telescope Array. Credit: ATA

SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence has suffered a big blow. The primary alien search engine –the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) in northern California — has been shut down due to budget woes. In a letter last week, the CEO of the SETI Institute, Tom Pierson told donors that in the ATA has been put into “hibernation,” — a safe mode of sorts, where “the equipment is unavailable for normal observations and is being maintained in a safe state by a significantly reduced staff.”

The ATA has been in hibernation since April 15, with the equipment put in a safe configuration so that it stays ready to be turned back on should the SETI Institute find new sources of funding.

While the ATA is not the only radio telescope that can be used for SETI searches, it was the observatory that was primarily used for that task, and now SETI researchers will have to borrow time on telescopes where “competition for observing time can be fierce or piggyback their searches on other ongoing observations,” according to John Matson, writing for Scientific American.

The ATA was operating with 42 antennas, and was scheduled to expand gradually to 350 six-meter radio antennas to listen for possible radio emissions from any faraway civilizations that might exist elsewhere in the galaxy. But after the first $50 million phase was completed in 2007, additions to the array were delayed due to lack of funding.

NASA had funded some of the early SETI projects, but Congress canceled any NASA contributions in 1993. The nonprofit SETI Institute, founded in 1984, relies mainly on private donations to support its research. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, had contributed $25 million to the first phase, with donations and grants funding the rest.

According to astronomer Franck Marchis, who works for the SETI Institute and the University of California, Berkeley – which is responsible for operating the ATA, “the financial state of the observatory degraded significantly over the past 2 years with the loss of various sources of funding (NSF, California state) at UC Berkeley” forcing UC Berkeley to withdraw from the SETI project. And, as Marchis wrote on his blog, “because the project is mainly funded through private donors, the economic recession had a huge impact and delayed significantly the expansion of the array impacting the overall project.”

In his letter, Pierson said that NSF funding has been reduced to approximately one-tenth of what it formerly gave to SETI. “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.

Pierson said that the SETI Institute has been working for more than two years to find additional funding, such as providing assistance to the US Air Force in tracking orbital debris. The SETI Institute is also currently working on a fundraising campaign to raise $5 million so that the ATA can be used to focus on the potentially habitable planets found by the Kepler telescope.

For anyone who is interested in donating SETI, and in particular the ATA and their search of signals from the Kepler database of planets, see this website.

Sources: Scientific American, Cosmic Diary, SETI Institute

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

pbackus April 26, 2011 at 12:32 AM

Just a minor correction: the SETI Institute relies mainly on private donations for its SETI research. The Institute has many Astrobiology projects funded by NASA and the NSF.

Peter Backus
SETI Institute

tripleclean April 26, 2011 at 1:49 AM

junk science

Ted Judah April 26, 2011 at 3:25 AM

Junk comment.
Even if ETs are never discovered, the value of the effort is well worth funding. After all, is the ATA not collecting vast amounts of radio DATA about our galaxy? ET seems like a longshot but the cost seems like a bargain to me.

Astrofiend April 26, 2011 at 2:48 AM

tripleclean April 26, 2011 at 1:49 am
“junk science”

No matter what your views on the SETI program, the loss of the Allen Telescope Array is a tremendous blow to Radio Astronomy. The SETI program was only ever piggy-backing on this array. The traditional science programs had full priority for observations, pointings and scheduling – SETI just listened in the background. And the science program was robust indeed – the scope had many unique features that made it a tremendously powerful aperture synthesis array with the capability to do great science – science that will be difficult to do to a similar standard on any other array. Fortunately it is boom-time for radio astronomy with many highly capable next-generation scopes due to come online over the next 20 years, so this will eventually be regarded as a minor setback. Still, for the research I’m involved in, it is among the premier instruments available today and will be missed.

Also – as I understand it the scope is in ‘hibernation mode’ at the moment. However, having spoken to people involved with the observatory, I hear it is only a matter of time before they tear the puppy down. This is a terrible outcome, especially considering all of the other bad news coming out of the US for astronomy at the moment, including the cancellation of LISA, IXO and the bloody good chance that JWST will be killed off altogether too soon.

IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE April 26, 2011 at 4:02 AM
marlon April 26, 2011 at 5:24 AM

hahaha. its never budget woes! would you believe that? of course the reason is SETI is almost there in finding alien life and for that reason the best alibi is BUDGET to cover it up again. Haaay, honesty… is not anymore the best policy.

Aqua April 26, 2011 at 6:19 AM

Oh crap…

Molecular April 26, 2011 at 7:32 AM

There really is a “waste of space” now. :(

FVRBLACKTYGER April 26, 2011 at 11:43 AM

There are some technical points about searching for Aliens. Some are simple, others are more technically difficult. Seti is not going to pick up the supercommunicate signals sent by the large Alien civilisations who talk in terms of Systems Galaxies. The Systems Galaxies have specific names, including this Galaxy. They also have specifc types of Compatible Aliens. When taking of Area 51 for example, the aliens in M 51 Galaxy will take an interest,but will be immediately aware that locally the populations are not talking in terms of the correct types of aliens nor the correct Star Science.The errors they note from the the local Science fiction! The wrongf names and wron style! Far too violent! The exceptionally advanced Aliens are thus at Power lock out; their power lock out, and indeed have been so for about 5000 years (with one or two excepted visits to assess for Protocols); then not met!

M51 Alien styles are well documented. SY BAAST TY ON, for example is an M 51 style name! TY ON is also a System Galaxy Name. Obvious, if you know exactly what to look for! Compatible type footstools and stars!

The System Galaxies only communicte with their friends and compatible species! Shutting down Seti might be required to demonstrate that it is correctly undertood that that is not the way to communicate with them.
The Head of Galaxy point is specific and likewise compatible stars. The Alien stars thus check whether this local star is in their System. That includes Stars which were previously in system but were put out! Of course such Star can re apply to be put in System, but that means Protocols must be run!

Those at Seti are not aware of the Star Science. However the Local Star is well aware of what is required! It must be the correct signal from the specific System Star in M 51, and the Local Star Flaring is as the Star plasma is sent and received. In an instant over 31 Millions light years! Star to Star! Slighty faster than the speed of light! Visible but Invisible!

fractal April 26, 2011 at 1:50 PM

$50 mln invested in building the array.
Now that it’s ready to be used, there is no $2.5 mln anually for operations??

If I were Paul Allen or another investor in this project, I wouldn’t think twice and spend the extra 5% to make the difference between a waste of money and a usefull investment.

That would be $2.5 mln generating a lot of science per dollar. Perhaps even the greatest discovery ever for humanity: extraterrestrial intelligence.

RUF April 26, 2011 at 3:26 PM

Should have put the array somewhere more stable than California. CA is destroyimg itself, and taking the USA down with it.

lacalaca April 26, 2011 at 6:37 PM

Rats. ATA was offered to GLXP teams free of charge for seven days, should a mission successfully land on the Moon. Not anymore, I’m afraid.

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