April 26, 2011 at 3:13 PM ET
Financial woes have delivered a serious blow to the search for E.T. One of its best tools, the Allen Telescope Array in northern California, has been put on hold until new funding is located.
"It is a huge irony," Jill Tarter, director of SETI research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., told me today. "Now we actually know where to point the telescopes to look at planets, but we don't have the telescopes to point right now, so a very ironic situation."
For decades, astronomers have pointed their telescopes at stars they thought were likely to have planets around them. This February, the first results from the NASA's Kepler Mission revealed 1,235 potential worlds in orbit around distant stars.
ATA financial woes
Since October 2007, the array of 42 radio telescopes located about 300 miles north of San Francisco has been searching for radio signals from stars that could indicate the presence of technologically advanced extraterrestrials.
The array is the instrument most dedicated to the E.T. search. The first phase was built with a $25 million gift from the foundation of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and another $25 million in private donations. Plans call for an eventual build out to 350 antennas, though the recession has slowed progress. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
The array is a partnership between the SETI Institute and the Radio Astronomy Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley. The institute is responsible for construction; the university for operations.
The Hat Creek Observatory, where the array is located, took a financial hit when the Radio Astronomy Laboratory lost funding from the National Science Foundation and the state of California that was used for its operations.
Running the ATA costs about $1.5 million a year and the SETI science campaign at ATA costs an additional $1 million annually, according to Pierson's letter.
New funding opportunities
One hope for new funding of long-term operations at the array is a potential partnership with the United States Air Force Space Command to use the array to help track space debris, a growing threat to satellites and manned spacecraft such as the International Space Station.
"This effort is ongoing and showing much promise, but near term funding has been delayed due to the same, highly publicized large scale federal budget problems we all read about in the news," Pierson writes in his letter.
NASA funding for SETI projects ceased in 1993, though the space agency continues to support tangentially-related research, including the Kepler mission to search for planets orbiting other stars. The SETI Institute hopes to raise $5 million to use the ATA to search the most promising Kepler targets.
"We hope that the public will get inspired to help us explore those Kepler worlds," said Tarter, who added the institute is also relying on citizen scientists to help develop computer code and algorithms for the setiquest and Galaxy Zoo programs.
The is all part of a push, she noted, to get people really thinking about what it means to be on the lookout for extraterrestrial intelligence and "to think about how we are so intimately related to the cosmos, to think about us in a bigger perspective so that perhaps we can do something about minimizing the differences we struggle with and make the point that we really are all Earthlings."
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