About the SA Blog Network



Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American
Observations HomeAboutContact

Budget crunch mothballs telescopes built to search for alien signals

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

The Allen Telescope Array in Hat Creek, CaliforniaThe hunt for extraterrestrial life just lost one of its best tools. The Allen Telescope Array (ATA), a field of radio dishes in rural northern California built to seek out transmissions from distant alien civilizations, has been shuttered, at least temporarily, as its operators scramble to find a way to continue to fund it.

In an April 22 letter to donors, Tom Pierson, CEO of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., explained that the ATA has been put into "hibernation," meaning that "starting this week, the equipment is unavailable for normal observations and is being maintained in a safe state by a significantly reduced staff." The ATA is a partnership between the SETI Institute, which is responsible for building the telescope array, and the University of California, Berkeley, which is responsible for operating it. Astronomer Franck Marchis, who is affiliated with both institutions, broke the news on his blog April 22.

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence—SETI for short—is hardly fringe science, but the field has not enjoyed the financial support available to disciplines that return more immediate, predictable benefits to society. The nonprofit SETI Institute was founded in 1984 and has mostly relied on private donations to support its research. NASA had bankrolled a number of early SETI Institute projects, but Congress canceled NASA’s short-lived SETI program in 1993.

The plans for the ATA called for a total of 350 individual six-meter radio antennas, all working in concert to detect radio emissions from civilizations that might exist elsewhere in the galaxy. But the array’s growth stalled after the first phase of construction in 2007, when 42 dishes were completed at a cost of $50 million. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the telescope array’s billionaire namesake, contributed half of that sum, according to the SETI Institute.

Funding is considerably scarcer now. U.C. Berkeley’s Radio Astronomy Laboratory has relied on funds from the National Science Foundation and the state of California to operate the Hat Creek Radio Observatory (HCRO) where the ATA is based, Pierson explained in his letter, and both of those sources have dried up. "NSF University Radio Observatory funding for HCRO has been reduced to approximately one-tenth of its former sum," Pierson wrote. "This is compounded by growing State of California budget shortfalls that have severely reduced the amount of state funds available to the Radio Astronomy Lab." ATA operations cost about $1.5 million per year, Pierson said, and the SETI science campaign at ATA costs another $1 million annually.

The SETI Institute would like to use the ATA to listen in on any radio waves that might be emanating from the extrasolar planets now being found by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. In February, Kepler scientists announced that they had compiled a list of 1,235 possible planets orbiting distant stars, including several that might be habitable. A current SETI Institute fundraising campaign is now aimed at raising $5 million to conduct a two-year search of Kepler’s most promising finds using the ATA, in the hopes that one of those worlds is inhabited by a technological civilization sending out radio waves.

The ATA is not the only radio telescope facility that can be used for SETI searches, but it is probably the instrument most committed to the task. SETI researchers elsewhere have to borrow time on telescopes where competition for observing time can be fierce or piggyback their searches on other ongoing observations.

Pierson said that the SETI Institute has been working for more than two years to find a new funding stream, for instance by offering up the ATA’s services to the U.S. Air Force to assist in tracking orbital debris that can endanger defense satellites. "We are continuing discussions with the USAF and remain hopeful that this effort will help provide future operating funds," he wrote.

ATA photo: SETI Institute

Rights & Permissions

Comments 31 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. letxequalx 11:06 am 04/24/2011

    cut the budget for SETI? We should increase it. It’s not like we are finding any answers to our problems locally.

    Link to this
  2. 2. syhprum1 11:30 am 04/24/2011

    The answer is to drop a hint to the military that it would be useful to detect missiles from rouge nations like Iran,N Korea,west Libya etc.
    A billion dollars is chicken feed to the military.

    Link to this
  3. 3. cardshoot 1:46 pm 04/24/2011

    They should set up a web site for donations if they don’t have one set up. If they do they have one then get the address out to people so people can donate.
    If they made it simple to donate with a charge card and made it a monthly charge for a limited time(Ex. $5.00 each month for 6 months)and make the amount donor entered in whole dolar amounts and length selectable from several options(once, two months, three months, 6, months, 1 year, __ years)they might get enough donations to stay up and running. And giving out some incentives for donating wouldn’t hurt. T-shirts and coffee mugs, hats and such with some slogan such as "I support SETI" or even offer a choice of several slogans for certain levels of donation.
    And optionable automatic twitter, e-mail, and Facebook reminders could be ofered to be sent out to a donor when the donation period ends.

    Link to this
  4. 4. marco-sum 2:21 pm 04/24/2011

    It’s sad to see that the SETTI research has been so neglected just because of a few million dollars that isn’t too much for billionaires and big companies, although the military aid might work, specially if they find some new way to kill people using it.

    Link to this
  5. 5. jtdwyer 5:06 pm 04/24/2011

    Anyone wishing to contribute is more than welcome. I would much prefer my tax funds be spent on some other useless projects that might employ more useless people.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Torbjörn Larsson, OM 8:38 pm 04/24/2011

    @ jtdwyer: "some other useless projects"

    This isn’t useless. It is an old question, the answer would help in astrobiology and ultimately another old question ie how life formed, and the technique is reasonable.

    Link to this
  7. 7. jtdwyer 10:06 pm 04/24/2011

    The window for some other technological life to detect our own EM emissions has effectively been open for less than 100 years – how long are we going to last?

    To find technological life that mirrored our own development schedule would require that they be no more than about 100 light years away. Most planets don’t in any way resemble Earth, even within our own Solar system.

    I’m far more interested in whether intelligent life will comfortably persist on Earth 100 years from now. Not many are even aware that the human population has quadrupled since 1900 and will soon have tripled since 1950. If we can’t comprehend what our expansion is doing to the planet, including the depletion of the resources necessary for our survival, no technological life will ever detect anything more than the faint echo of our past existence. Best wishes to all…

    Link to this
  8. 8. Andromedabv 11:15 pm 04/24/2011

    How can anyone justify the use of tax dollars on a program designed to listen to space static because they think they will receive a message from space aliens mixed into the static? I’m sorry if some people think this program is important, but maybe it’s time to prioritize things a bit better. ET’s messages can wait until the economy stabilizes. If the government made more strides in creating jobs, and decreasing public assistance, then you can justify spending money on SETI.
    Maybe there is life on other planets, and maybe they’ve been around longer than us, and are infinitly more intelligent, but if that’s the case, they would be smart enough to stay away from us.

    Link to this
  9. 9. RoeDeVasto 1:01 am 04/25/2011

    PLEASE help fund the search.

    Link to this
  10. 10. RoeDeVasto 1:06 am 04/25/2011

    you can help!

    Link to this
  11. 11. ScienceBuff 3:30 am 04/25/2011

    It’s about time. I cannot think of *anything* I was more shocked at find out that taxpayer dollars were funding than on searching for so-called extraterrestrial life. What an unbelieveable waste of taxpayer monies and resources. If people want to do such a thing then let them use *their own* time and money – please, please don’t let them waste my hard-earned tax dollars on something as useless and vain as this.

    Link to this
  12. 12. ScienceBuff 3:33 am 04/25/2011

    Typo correction/rephrasing – "I cannot think of *anything* I was more shocked at with respect to tax dollars being spent on than I was at finding out some time ago that taxpayer dollars were funding searching for so-called extraterrestrial life."

    Link to this
  13. 13. umesh 5:14 am 04/25/2011

    why not make it a complete ppl project follow the way of the wiki chk out number of active users the project would be up and running in no time.

    Link to this
  14. 14. b_zachary 2:36 pm 04/25/2011

    Every day, we come closer to that instant of unforgivable neglect. :

    Link to this
  15. 15. lbartlett66 3:36 pm 04/25/2011

    Link to this
  16. 16. colinnwn 4:33 pm 04/25/2011

    This is some really poor reporting by SA. It makes it sound like the ATA is only beneficial in SETI observations. It is true the ATA was jointly designed by the SETI Institute AND the Radio Astronomy Lab at UC Berkeley.

    In an effort to get and maintain funding, it was specifically designed to first be an excellent, easily upgradeable, and very cheap radio telescope for traditional radio astronomy observations, and SECONDLY to allow SETI to piggyback on the same observations. RAL and SETI have an agreement that specifically states that normal astonomical observations will decide where they point the telescope array so SETI observations don’t interfere with its more traditional operations.

    At this point SETI is almost an irrelevant side project for the ATA. It should be maintained and funded (by the US government if necessary) for all the more typical and valid science it can do extremely affordably.

    Link to this
  17. 17. DeanCSmith 5:09 pm 04/25/2011

    Maybe Tomorrow

    Link to this
  18. 18. karagi 7:09 pm 04/25/2011

    The short-sightedness of some who would prefer to save the pittance that this program costs is what astounds me.

    With more stars in the Universe than grains of sand on the beaches of earth, the probability of life elsewhere is very high. Detecting it, though, is very difficult.

    But, imagine the impact on humanity to discover that we are not alone, that other civilizations have survived.
    Beyond any scientific information we may learn from these civilizations, just the knowledge that they exist would alter our perceptions of religions and the divisions that prevent us from uniting as one humanity.

    Link to this
  19. 19. tomstockmail 8:00 pm 04/25/2011

    "To find technological life that mirrored our own development schedule would require that they be no more than about 100 light years away."

    Are you kidding or stupid?

    Link to this
  20. 20. ScienceBuff 10:05 pm 04/25/2011

    "The short-sightedness of some who would prefer to save the pittance that this program costs is what astounds me."

    I strongly beg to differ. What’s astoundingly short-sighted is people insisting on chasing Yeti’s, Loch Ness Monsters, pyramid-building UFOs, ghosts and alleged extra-terrestrials at taxpayer expense. With not one shred of reliable evidence anywhere that such a thing exists. Unless that’s how they think crop circles got here. Or thinking that just because there are lots of stars out there that the probability of life is very high. The complexity of life as we know it makes that very unlikely indeed.

    And thinking that somehow finding non-existent aliens will change human nature and make everyone get along, guess again. It’s not religions dividing people, it’s human nature itself. People dividing and mistreating one another starts with *two* people, actually with *one* person — not with religions, philosophies or political parties. You name *any* group or affiliation, and you’ll see people divided and mistreating each other. Even within their own families. Thinking that seeing a non-existent ET will clear up all that, now that is short-sighted indeed. SETI is good tax money – however little – that absolutely belongs elsewhere.

    Link to this
  21. 21. Tropical fish 4:05 am 04/26/2011

    Oh my lady gaga ,I can understand no word…My dear English, I have to give up

    Link to this
  22. 22. AffordableWebDesign 5:31 am 04/26/2011

    I would like to offer IT services at no cost, is that possible?

    Link to this
  23. 23. karagi 7:13 pm 04/26/2011

    ScienceBuff, first of all searching for life in the universe is not the same thing as chasing Yeti’s. Knowledgeable scientists have made credible estimates and determined the odds are high.

    Throughout history, as much as we thought we were unique, we eventually learned we’re not. The sun doesn’t revolve around us, the sun itself is quite ordinary, our location in the galaxy is not exceptional nor is our galaxy, our planet doesn’t have any special ingredients found nowhere else, etc… And, as I said before, with the mind boggling number of stars and planets and the billions of years available, why would you think that life developing only on Earth is even a credible proposition? (I suppose you feel exploring for current or past life on Mars is also a waste of money.)

    Luckily for humanity there have been people throughout history that ignored sentiments like yours, that took a chance and went on to discover knowledge that has allowed civilization to progress.

    Secondly, I said that finding other life would alter our perceptions on religions and humanity’s divisions. I didn’t say that it would suddenly make us all hold hands and sing Kumbaya. Human nature may not have fundamentally changed but we’ve come a long way from the time when we didn’t have laws and brute violence was the everyday norm. We’ve learned to control our nature to a great extent and scientific progress has been a key reason.

    Just look at the effect satellites have had by allowing us to view the earth and ourselves as a whole and by giving us unprecedented abilities to communicate. People are slowly progressing to a worldview that transcends national boundaries and have begun working together more and more on global environmental, political and humanitarian issues. I believe finding other life will only accelerate that trend.

    Lastly, even if you think the chances of finding anything are slim, we’re talking less money than the cost of paving another mile of highway. If you really are a "Science Buff" you’d want to at least try to find the truth instead of dismissing it out of hand when we have just begun searching.

    Link to this
  24. 24. UFO Guy 10:08 pm 04/26/2011

    I like Setti however after 60 years Nothing.
    There are visual sightings every day or night.
    I use infra-Red video with sound.
    There is never a guess.

    The UFO Guy

    Link to this
  25. 25. NadyBaby 5:38 pm 04/27/2011

    Perhaps there is no need to search anymore…

    Link to this
  26. 26. NadyBaby 5:40 pm 04/27/2011

    Perhaps there is no need to search anymore…

    Link to this
  27. 27. outdoorathon 4:50 pm 04/28/2011

    I don’t doubt the scientific validity of SETI. We can’t fund everything and must make difficult choices. We spend much more money understanding other galaxies and looking for other planets that could sustain life [both of which are important to do], than understanding life on Earth and how we are altering ecosystems.

    Link to this
  28. 28. 3C273 5:38 pm 04/28/2011

    It is reasonable that a program such as this, which depends on optimistic coefficients in the Drake Equation, be mothballed when so many other scientific programs with solid objectives are starving for funds.
    Of course, the more earth-like planets that are detected, the more appealing SETI’s programs will become to a lot of people; I am a little surprised that they could not fund this by subscription alone, given the strong popular interest in it.

    Link to this
  29. 29. ennui 10:37 pm 04/28/2011

    The "telescope" isa a bunch of radio signal watchers.
    THey should tune in to the frequency emitterd by the spheres under a Flying Saucer. If these sheres are 1 meter big, just calculate the frequency. The Mother Ships probably have spheres the size of 10 meters.
    Have they ever thought about that? I wrote about it already years ago to them.

    Link to this
  30. 30. Ronnie 11:26 pm 04/28/2011

    Seriously, this has always been fringe science, using radio waves to pick up transmissions is ridiculous science. Let’s start with some facts that are irrefutable, there are over 5000 sightings of UFO’s each year, there are over 2000 photos and videos taken each year of UFO’s. There are over 450 military officers and Federal employees that have sworn that they have worked on or with Alien technology at the National Press Club’s Disclosure Project. So while we listen for radio waves the U.S. government officially refuses to fund any UFO efforts while certifying all who wish to as idiots or crazies. No official program or investigation has ever taken place except hidden programs as testified by ex-military or CIA employees. So, why would any Scientist take the Alan Project serious, even if a UFO flew over the headquarters and dropped leaflets on them they would demise any message had been found. I, for one consider all efforts a fake and a total waste of time until the efforts become serious. Take the blinders off and you will see that history has recorded UFO’s for over 7000 years, from books to cave walls, they are here when do we admit it…..

    Link to this
  31. 31. jgrosay 6:52 am 04/29/2011

    Some people involved in the search for alien signals claim having tuned a microwave emission from the surroundings of a star, with an appearance of being non natural, but the tuning ended in seconds. If they were aliens, the chances are near to nil that our technology is able to enter their communication systems. Such a thing as a public contact just will never happen, but it’s almost impossible that aliens do really exist, and that we succeed in finding them; if I were one alien, I will simply hide, nobody fully knows the intentions of others. It is a wise decission not to spend money in a purposeless search

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article