Posted on behalf of George Wigmore.
SETI has been at the forefront of our search for extraterrestrial life since its launch 50 years ago. But having failed to secure funding, in April its latest effort fell silent.
A joint effort between the SETI institute and the University of California, Berkeley, the Allen Array Telescope (ATA) was part of a plan to construct an array capable of carrying out astronomical observations, while also heading up the search for intelligent alien life. While in the past SETI relied on borrowed telescope time, ATA was to be completely at the disposal of the project, giving the institute complete control over its large-scale telescope.
Dreamt of for years, it wasn’t until 2001 that work on the array started following a $25 million donation from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Six years later the first phase of the project was completed, and the array become operational with 42 antennas. Yet despite collecting important data since its launch, due to funding constraints, the array has been placed in hibernation. The shutdown caused an outpouring of support for the project, and the public responded immediately, flooding the SETI institute with donations.
Following the closure, SETIstars was set up to help coordinate the donations. The response has been impressive, and since the shutdown more than $200,000 has been raised through donations. As a result, ATA is soon set to resume scanning the skies for intelligent life.
Despite SETI finding no signs of life in 50 years of searching, the ATA adds other dimensions to the project. Besides helping to make considerable strides in radio astronomy, the ATA has also been used to detect space debris. These additional attributes, combined with the unanswered ‘Are we alone?’ question have lead to its advocates insisting that it still has a role to play.
It is this ability to detect space debris that may also provide insight into future funding opportunities, as more than two years ago, in the face of potential funding difficulties, the SETI institute set out to forge a partnership with the US Air Force (USAF). The plan is to see how well ATA could operate as a “collaborating sensor to the USAF space surveillance network, helping track space debris”, according to an open letter from Tom Pierson chief executive of the SETI Institute.
With operational costs of around $1.5 million per year, the ATA is not cheap to run, as a further $1 million is needed to cover the costs of the SETI science efforts. But this potential collaboration, along with the direct crowd-sourcing of funding, represents an interesting development as purse strings continue to tighten. Providing SETI the opportunity to continue doing what it does best, and the public with the chance to support the projects that really resonate with them.
Image: The Allan Telescope Array, couresty of brewbooks via Flickr under Creative Commons.