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State cutbacks hibernate SETI’s search for alien life

The Hat Creek Radio Observatory facility in Shasta County. Courtesy Colby Gutierrez-Kraybill/ PHOTO

Contact? In this economy, not for a while.

Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, or SETI is an institute that tasks itself with searching for extraterrestrial beings through the analysis of radio signals from space. The institute said last week that it would temporarily “hibernate” their Shasta County-based observatory due to a budgetary crisis.

That facility, Allen Telescope Array’s Hat Creek Radio Observatory, belongs to the Mountain View-based institute and consists of a large number of parabolic radio antennas pointed skyward in unison to gather radio signals from space.
The SETI project has been on the hunt for extra-terrestrial life through monitoring distant radio signals since the 1960s. The program currently faces extended disruptions after funding for the $1.5 million per year project is steadily evaporating.

UC Berkeley, which operates the array, made the decision to cut operation of the facilities. In an April 22 letter to SETI Institute Supporters, CEO of SETI institute Tom Pierson said the closure was due to funding reductions by the National Science Foundation and budget cutbacks to the State of California via Berkeley’s Radio Astronomy Lab.

“New solutions must be found,” he wrote.

According to the letter, Berkeley has attempted to work with other agencies to, in essence, sell dish time in order to make up for their operating costs. One such effort is a partnership with the US Air Force to help track debris from outer space.
However, most of these alternative efforts are also funded using public money and have also been stricken by the same budgetary woes as SETI.

The shutdown of the Hat Creek Radio Observatory facility, which was built in 2007, was not unpredicted. For years -– especially as the economy tanked –- SETI has seen funding steadily disappear. Shutdowns of space-oriented programs are becoming more abundant as the US budget shifts further toward defense funding and away from science funding, SETI supporters said.

They pointed to the last Space Shuttle launch — barely two months away — and NASA’s lack of plans to restart the program. The aerospace industry, at least in the United States, is undergoing a massive shift toward privatization and is likely to continue in this direction without more public funding, said SETI supporters.

Contact Andrew Leonard at aleonard@californiabeat.org.

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