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Boffins pull plug on SETI alien-seeking antenna array

With no funds in coffers, ET searchers let go

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The SETI Institute has put its renowned Allen Telescope Array into hibernation because it doesn't have the money to run the giant cluster of radio dishes that search the heavens for extraterrestrial life.

The shuttering of the ATA was disclosed on Friday by scientists who said the project was unable to find the $5m infusion it needed to operate over the next two years. Franck Marchis – who works with SETI and the University of California at Berkeley, which oversees day-to-day operations at ATA – said activities at the Hat Creek Observatory, where the project is located, have already been suspended.

“All the equipments have been taken care of to make sure that they do not deteriorate over time,” Marchis wrote. “Unfortunately, three members of the Hat Creek Observatory staff have received a lay-off notice and one of them is moving to the CARMA observatory, a millimeter wave interferometer.

The suspension comes two months after the compilation of 1,235 new possible planets, observed by the Kepler space observatory, several of which scientists believe contain the water and light needed to support life. SETI scientists had hoped to use the ATA to monitor radio waves emanating from those extrasolar planets.

The ATA was originally envisioned to be 350 radio-wave antennas that worked in concert, scanning space for radio signals that might have been sent by intelligent life. It currently has 42 telescopes, which are located in northern California.

The hibernation comes as California and the US government face severe budget shortfalls. While funding for science has dried up across the board, money earmarked for SETI is a particularly hard sell because it doesn't provide the kind of immediate and predictable returns offered by other projects. SETI once got funding from NASA and later got funds from wealthy donors, including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the ATA's namesake who covered about half of the $50 million needed to build the ATA.

The best chance of keeping the ATA running is to convince the US military to use it to track space debris that threaten satellites. More from Scientific American and The San Jose Mercury News are here and here. ®

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