|Allen Telescope Array. (Credit: ATA)|
SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence has been hit by a budget crunch. The result is that one of their best tools, the Allen Telescope Array, has been mothballed. The CEO of the SETI Institute, Tom Pierson told donors in a letter on April 22 that the ATA has been put into "hibernation." To elaborate the letter explained, "starting this week, the equipment is unavailable for normal observations and is being maintained in a safe state by a significantly reduced staff."
The hope is that this is a temporary shuttering while the ATA operators search for a way to fund its continued use.
The ATA is a field of 42 radio dishes in rural northern California built to seek out transmissions from distant alien civilizations, the only set dedicated to this search. With ATA offline, SETI researchers will have to attempt to gain access to other telescopes, where, according to John Matson, writing for Scientific American, "competition for observing time can be fierce or piggyback their searches on other ongoing observations."
The ATA is run by 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. But because of reduced funding from various sources, including the National Science Fund (NSF) and California State, UC Berkley was forced to withdraw from the project.
Pierson said that the SETI institute has been looking for additional funding for over two years, such as providing assistance to the U.S. Air Force in tracking orbital debris. ATA operating costs are about $1.5 million a year, with an additional $1 million annually to pursue the SETI science campaign at ATA. (Source)
A fundraising campaign is currently underway by the SETI institute to raise $5 million to use the ATA to focus on the potential habitable planets found by the Kepler telescope. If you are interested in donating, please visit their website.
Personally, I think SETI is a bit of a needle in a haystack. Although that analogy fails to grasp the scope of the size, it's more like looking for one needle in all the haystacks on Earth. I don't think its a bad idea to search though. Keeping our eyes, and ears, open will be the only way to tell if anyone really is out there. It is true that SETI may not turn anything up any time soon, but the longer it runs, the higher chance of success it has.