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Allen Telescope Array.  Credit: ATA

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

25 Apr , 2011

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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

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pbackus
Member
pbackus
April 26, 2011 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
Member
tripleclean
April 26, 2011 1:49 AM

junk science

Ted Judah
Member
Ted Judah
April 26, 2011 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
Member
Astrofiend
April 26, 2011 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… Read more »
IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE
Member
IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE
April 26, 2011 4:02 AM
marlon
Member
marlon
April 26, 2011 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.

Molecular
Member
Molecular
April 26, 2011 7:32 AM

There really is a “waste of space” now. sad

Aqua4U
Member
April 26, 2011 6:19 AM

Oh crap…

FVRBLACKTYGER
Member
April 26, 2011 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… Read more »
fractal
Member
fractal
April 26, 2011 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
Guest
RUF
April 26, 2011 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
Member
April 26, 2011 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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