April 27, 2011

Lack Of Funding Puts SETI Into Hibernation

The SETI Institute has put its $50 million Allen Telescope Array (ATA) into hibernation because the organization is unable to attract the $5m investment it needs to fund operation of the vast radio dishes that search the universe for extraterrestrial life.

In an email sent last Friday to ATA private donors, SETI Institute CEO Tom Pierson described the recent decision by University of California at Berkeley, which oversees daily operations at the ATA, to suspend operations of the Hat Creek Radio Observatory (HCRO), where the project is located.

Pierson said there were "serious challenges" in finding operating funds, and that beginning this week the organization's brand new ATA would be placed into hibernation.

"This means that the equipment is unavailable for normal observations and is being maintained in a safe state by a significantly reduced staff," he wrote in the email.

SETI, which stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, is the scientific institute made famous in Carl Sagan's novel Contact.  The organization has spent half a century searching the universe for radio signals from deep space that might indicate we are not alone.

The financial problems specifically involve the operation of the ATA, a set of radio dishes dedicated to searching for alien signals.

Although the ATA was paid for by the SETI Institute, it is managed and operated by the radio astronomy lab of the University of California at Berkeley.

SETI senior astronomer Seth Shostak said the facility needs about $2m-$3m a year to function, and the scientists need an additional $5m to fund a two-year project to listen for possible radio signals coming from the exoplanets found by NASA's Kepler satellite.

Until now, the funds needed to operate the observatory have come from a combination of private donations, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the state government of California.

However, funding from the NSF has been reduced to roughly a tenth of its former level, while growing budget shortfalls in the state of California have severely cut the amount of state funds available for support of the HCRO site.

"As it happens, Berkeley's budget is way down "“ the state of California is in terrible financial circumstances because of the economic downturn," Shostak told the Guardian.

"Consequently, they don't have the money to keep the doors open and pay the electric bills and pay the staff at the antenna. And we don't either, because we run our SETI projects mostly based on private donations, and those are down as well."

There is some hope of raising the money through working with the U.S. Air Force on future projects, Pierson said.   One idea being considered is a collaborative project between the ATA and the USAF's space surveillance network to track space debris, which can damage satellites and space vehicles.

However, given impending cuts in federal funding for the U.S. military, such a plan is uncertain.

"The other possibility is that private donations could bring the telescope back to life and keep it working," Shostak said.

The ATA is the SETI Institute's largest facility, and its only dedicated one. Its shutdown means astronomers will need to rely on data gathered during downtime from other telescopes, lessening its chances of finding any alien signals.

Additional details about the ATA hibernation and plans to address the situation can be viewed here .

Public donations to help return the ATA operations and support the SETI exploration of the Kepler planets can be made at http://www.seti.org/page.aspx?pid=1574.