April 27, 2011
The SETI Institute announced this week that the Allen Telescope Array, with which the institute searches for signals of extra-terrestrials, has been temporarily taken offline due to lack of funding. Tom Pierson, the institute’s CEO, wrote in a letter to supporters (pdf):
Unfortunately, today’s government budgetary environment is very difficult, and new solutions must be found. [National Science Foundation] University Radio Observatory funding for [Hat Creek Radio Observatory, where the ATA is located] has been reduced to approximately one-tenth of its former level. 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. Combined, these factors have resulted in the current decision by [the University of California at Berkeley, which operates HCRO] to reduce operations of the Hat Creek site to a hibernation mode, pending future funding or some alternative solution. Hibernation means that, starting this week, the equipment is unavailable for normal observations and is being maintained in a safe state by a significantly reduced staff.
This doesn’t mean the search is dead. Other efforts, such as setiQuest, will continue; other telescopes can continue to search; and the ATA will come to life again once funding can be found. In addition, NASA and other space agencies will continue their searches for evidence of life on other planets. But SETI is perhaps the most famous of the ET hunters, and with the recent discovery of more than 1,200 potential planets that would make interesting listening targets for SETI, shutting down the ATA is somewhat of a disheartening development.
SETI’s scientists are used to thinking long-term, however. After decades of scanning for radio signals, they recently began to search for laser flashes, as I reported in a story for Smithsonian‘s Mysteries of the Universe special issue last year:
“We’re looking for bright flashes that last a billionth of a second or less,” says Jill Tarter, director of the Center for SETI Research and the inspiration for the Jodie Foster character in the movie Contact. “As far as we know, this is something that a laser can do but that nature can’t.” SETI scientists figure that such a pulse would represent an intentional, high-tech, long-distance message: “evidence of somebody deliberately using a laser focused into a large telescope to create a detectable signal over the many light-years between stars,” Tarter says.
The radio signal approach hasn’t turned up much so far, and Tarter admits she doesn’t know what the ideal frequencies might be. Even with the new search for laser flashes, the SETI scientists might be using incorrect technologies, but they still think the effort is worthwhile. As her colleague Seth Shostak says, “Columbus didn’t wait for a 747 to get him across the Atlantic.”
And though SETI scientists have yet to find evidence of extraterrestrials, they are well prepared for success. “Yes, we do have a plan,” Tarter says. “It starts with champagne.”
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.