SETI loses funding, hunt for extraterrestrials on hold

SETI telescope

April 26, 2011 7:31:19 PM PDT
Some of the world's finest radio telescopes have fallen prey to budget cuts, and that means the end to some fundamental, but also very popular research looking for extraterrestrials, at least for now.

If you liked the movie "Contact" about radio signals from extraterrestrials, well, there was more, if you had heard about the work in this 50-year-old instrument. Academics and astronomers are in mourning over the end of what they call, the Allen Array.

As a place for radio astronomy, it's perfect. A volcanic valley near the Lassen National Forest that terrestrial signals cannot penetrate. But the 42 telescopes there do nothing, now.

"We've lost a first-rate research instrument," says Seth Shostak, Ph.D. of the SETI Institute.

"It feels almost criminal," says UC Berkeley astronomer Leo Blitz, Ph.D.

"It puts us in a sorry state," says UC Berkeley astronomer Geoff Bower, Ph.D.

If you sense the frustration of Bower, Blitz and Shostak, bear in mind that they're holding back. As the result of state and federal budget cuts -- roughly $3 million -- the Hat Creek Observatory, operated by UC Berkeley, is now in mothballs and the deep space research it generated, abandoned, perhaps indefinitely.

"We're talking science," says Blitz. "That was always my interest in it."

A portion of that science had a sexy side because through the radio telescopes, the SETI Institute was methodically scanning the skies, looking for radio signals from other intelligent life. The irony is that with recent discoveries of planets, they finally knew where to look, but now they can't.

"For example, NASA's Kepler telescope has found 50, 60 planets out there ? already it's found 50 or 60 planets out there that might be somewhat like the Earth," says Shostak. "Well, aren't those the places you'd want to look at first?"

But that's the headline. Academics say the broader story is about how budget cuts increasingly hurt the prestige of American universities doing fundamental science research. If those universities become second-rate, the best students will go elsewhere.

"Their opportunities are in Europe, Australia, South Africa, they're not in the United States," says Bower.

What does that say about our country? "I think we have some misguided priorities," says Bower.

A large part of the initial funding for the Allen Array came from Paul Allen of Microsoft. Its operating budget came from the national science foundation, and state of California. SETI, among others, will be actively seeking donations. They say three cents from every American would keep the telescope going.

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