SETI Shutters Search For Alien Life

Budget cuts force the Allen Telescope Array, which scans space for extraterrestrial life, into hibernation mode while SETI searches for other funding.
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Diminished funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the state of California has shut down the SETI Institute's search for extraterrestrial life.

The institute has taken its Allen Telescope Array (ATA) offline while it seeks other sources of funding, it said in a letter to donors last week. In operation since 2007, the 42-radio antenna array--housed at the University of California Berkeley Hat Creek Radio Observatory--scans space for signs of extraterrestrial life.

Now NSF funding for the observatory has been cut to one-tenth of its former level, and California's budgetary woes also have severely affected financial support for it, forcing SETI to send the array into hibernation mode, the institute's CEO said in an e-mail (PDF) to donors last week.

"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," SETI CEO Tom Pierson wrote.

Foreseeing funding issues, the institute two years ago tried to keep the array up and running by partnering with the Air Force, using the telescopes to help the military track space debris. While that effort is "ongoing and showing much progress," funding for it has also been delayed by federal budget cuts, Pierson said.

He said SETI is putting the array out of commission at an unfortunate time, as the telescopes are supporting a breakthrough finding in NASA's Kepler Mission, which searches for habitable planets.

Kepler recently identified 1,235 possible new planets, including five that are similar to Earth in size and orbit close enough to their stars to support life. Pierson said the ATA is some of the best technology available to observe them.

SETI is currently seeking other avenues of funding to raise the $5 million it needs to support the Kepler project for two years. It's asking people to donate via its website.

SETI also conferring with a consortium of experts to find ways the public can support the institute in the future so it's not so "vulnerable to government budget cycles," Pierson said.

SETI is not the only high-tech project that's feeling the brunt of federal and state budget axes. Fourteen government departments or agencies will see a decrease in IT spending in fiscal-year 2012 over 2011, which will certainly affect current projects. Even some key White House open-government projects could be on the chopping block due to budget cuts.