Radio telescopes of the Allen Telescope Array are seen in Hat Creek, Calif. in Oct., 2007. (Ben Margot/AP)

In an e-mail sent this past Friday to ATA private donors, SETI Institute CEO Tom Pierson said there was a shortage of $5 million needed to fund the operation of the giant radio dishes that search the universe for signals from deep space. Starting this week, operations of the Hat Creek Radio Observatory north of San Francisco, where the ATA is located, will be suspended, and the 42 dishes will be put into hibernation.

Scientists and astronomers said the timing was disastrous, as the Kepler telescope had recently identified 1,235 possible new planets, many of which could be similar to Earth in size and habitability.

“Here we are, just at the point of finding habitable worlds as common as cheap motels, and we’re mothballing the one instrument that can investigate if there’s life,” says Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at SETI. “It’s like being set down on treasure island, and then not being given a shovel.”

Funding for the SETI project has been tight since1994, when NASA funding was withdrawn because Congress voted that it was not worth the money.

Since then, funds have come from a combination of private donations, including from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), and the state government of California.

Funding from the NSF has recently been reduced to about a tenth of its former level and budget shortfalls in California have severely cut the amount of state funds available for support.

But Shostak is hopeful that the ATA could be saved by additional private donations, or money from the U.S. Air Force, which has been using the ATA for the last two years to track satellites and space junk.

That funding is dependent in part on Congress. “Some people think with all the problems in the world, why would we keep looking?” Shostak says. “But any time in history that there has been an important discovery, people were told that. People could have said Mozart was just about making music. This is the difference between us and the squirrels. Their life is not so different from how it was a thousands years ago.”

The SETI Institute, which stands for Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, was founded in 1984 and was made famous by astronomer Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, which was made into a movie starring Jodie Foster.

Watch the scene in which Foster hears the “first contact”:

SETI has set up a page where people can donate to try to save the ATA here.