This week, the SETI Institute announced that it would have to shut down its large radio telescope facility, called the Allen Telescope Array, near the California mountain town Hat Creek. For over a decade, SETI has used the 42 radio dishes in its array to scan the skies for possible communications from extraterrestrial intelligence.
2011 was expected to be a banner year for the group, because recent space probe missions have revealed the locations of over 1000 possible Earthlike planets - and with them, regions of space where the array could scan for signs of the civilizations we hope to find on planets like our own.
Over the years, SETI has been funded by NASA, the National Science Foundation, and donations from philanthropists like Paul Allen. This year, the NSF cut its funding to SETI to ten percent of what it had been. According to the San Jose Mercury News:
What's lacking now is funding to support the day-to-day costs of running the dishes. This is the responsibility of UC Berkeley's Radio Astronomy Laboratory, but one of the university's major funders, the National Science Foundation, supplied only one-tenth its previous support. Meanwhile, the state of California has also cut funding. About $5 million is needed over the next two years.
SETI astronomer Seth Shostack told the paper:
This is about exploration, and we want to keep the thing operational. It's no good to have it sit idle. We have the radio antennae up, but we can't run them without operating funds.
SETI hopes to make up for the lost funds by doing work for the Air Force, tracking dangerous space debris near Earth.
Though there are a few other telescopes that occasionally scan the skies for extraterrestrial communication, SETI was the only experiment devoted to this activity full time. If donors don't step forward to keep the array operational, we could miss out on a chance to make contact with civilizations elsewhere in the galaxy. Or we might miss the early warnings of an imminent invasion. Either way, the loss of SETI's Allen Telescope Array is a terrible tragedy.
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