SETI Search Halted as Allen Telescope Array Lacks Funding

Budget cuts have forced the hibernation of telescopes used by the SETI Institute's search of extraterrestrial life.

Effective this week, the Allen Telescope Array, used for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute's work, has been placed into hibernation due to funding shortfalls for operations of the Hat Creek Radio Observatory where the ATA is located. Not only does the Array enable SETI search, but it also has been used to make advances in radio astronomy and, most recently, in the development of the ability to detect space debris.

The Array is a partnership between the SETI Institute and the Radio Astronomy Lab of the University of California, Berkeley. Consistent with the original partnership understandings, the SETI Institute raised the funds to construct the Array, while the operations of the Observatory have been the responsibility of UCB.

The UC Berkeley Radio Astronomy Lab has operated the Hat Creek Observatory for more than five decades, hosting several generations of radio astronomy instruments, the most recent being the ATA. Historically, the costs of HCRO operations were supported from two primary sources: major "University Radio Observatory" grants from the National Science Foundation, and supplemental budgetary support from the State of California via Berkeley's Radio Astronomy Lab.

"Unfortunately, today's government budgetary environment is very difficult, and new solutions must be found. NSF University Radio Observatory funding for HCRO 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," wrote SETI Institute CEO Tom Pierson in a letter to supporters. "Combined, these factors have resulted in the current decision by UCB 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."

Meanwhile, even though the array is in hibernation, Pierson said the work of the Center for SETI Research continues. He outlined a number of projects that are being worked on, including a software correlator, new detection algorithms, data storage capability direct to disk from individual antennas, and a new feed and receiver system. "We also plan to develop new tools that will enable citizen scientists to help us identify the sources of radio frequency interference, and new avenues for application developers to add new visualizations and detection algorithms," he said.

More than two years ago, seeing the early effects of funding difficulties, the SETI Institute began an effort to replace the lost funds by seeking a partnership with the United States Air Force to conduct experiments to see how the ATA could serve as a collaborating sensor to the USAF space surveillance network, helping track space debris. Pierson said while this effort is ongoing and showing much promise, near-term funding has been delayed due to the same, highly publicized large scale federal budget problems.