Search for extraterrestrial life faces setback with SETI telescope ‘hibernation’

April 27, 2011

Efforts to pick up signals from potentially advanced civilizations living far afield were at least temporarily discontinued this week following the SETI Institute announcement that it had run out of money to operate its new and state-of-art radio telescope array in Northern California.

According to SETI chief executive Tom Pierson, the Hat Creek facility — which SETI built and operates with the radio astronomy lab of the University of California at Berkeley — will be placed into “hibernation” mode until additional funds can be found.

The shutdown comes just as NASA’s Kepler mission and ground-based astronomers are finding hundreds of planets — with thousands more anticipated — that circle stars beyond our solar system. The presence of so many exoplanets, and the growing likelihood that some are in “habitable zones” where scientists think life is most possible, has excited both the worlds of astronomy and astrobiology — the search for life beyond Earth.

But SETI officials said Tuesday that both government and private funds have dried up, and the Hat Creek facility no longer has the $1.5 million a year needed to operate.

Although SETI has long used the data from other radio telescopes to conduct its searches, the 2007 opening of the Allen Telescope Array in Northern California was supposed to give the organization far more telescope time than ever before, and to have far better computer capabilities to read the data. Some SETI observation will continue using data from other sources.

The array, situated in a valley between Mount Shasta and Mount Lassen, cost about $50 million to build. Some $30 million of that came from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and much of the rest from Silicon Valley donors. Named the Allen Telescope Array, it consists of 42 dishes that pick up radio signals that are then funneled into a set of advanced computers and relayed to SETI’s San Francisco area scientists for analysis.

SETI operations began in the United States 50 years ago, and have recently spread internationally. A directed SETI effort led by Japanese astronomers last year pulled in contributors from 15 nations.

SETI has long had passionate supporters and an army of critics. Congress specifically banned any funding for SETI in 1993 at the urging of then-Nevada Sen. Richard Bryan. Those restrictions were lifted by NASA and the National Science Foundation toward the end of the Bush administration, when officials concluded SETI and its Allen array offered high-quality science.

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