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SETI hunt for alien life put on hold

Budget squeeze forces extraterrestrial-hunting telescope array into hibernation

April 26, 2011 04:31 PM ET

Computerworld - The federal and state budget squeeze is affecting life here on Earth -- and beyond.

Astronomers at the SETI Institute in Northern California announced that it has been forced to stop operations at the Allen Telescope Array, a field of more than 40 radio dishes that scan the skies for communications from aliens.

The array began scanning for signals from extraterrestrial life in October of 2007, and SETI planned to eventually expand the project to 350 dishes, covering 90 square miles. But financial constraints are forcing the institute's astronomers to put the array into hibernation.

"Effective this week, the [Allen Telescope Array] has been placed into hibernation due to funding shortfalls for operations of the Hat Creek Radio Observatory where the [array] is located," wrote SETI Institute CEO Tom Pierson, in an open letter sent late last week to project donors. "Unfortunately, today's government budgetary environment is very difficult, and new solutions must be found."

Pierson did note in the letter that the institute is negotiating a potential partnership with U.S. Air Force to use the dish array to help track space debris, which might give the project the funding it needs to some day resume the search for alien life.

"This effort is ongoing and showing much promise, but near term funding has been delayed due to the same, highly publicized large scale federal budget problems we all read about in the news," wrote Pierson.

Located in Hat Creek, Calif. about 300 miles northeast of San Francisco, the dish array is operated by the SETI Institute, which is a group focused on finding extraterrestrial life, and the University of California at Berkeley.

The SETI Institute raised the funds needed to construct the Array, while funding the observatory's operations has been the responsibility of the state university.

The construction of the array was largely funded by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. Allen is a co-founder of Microsoft.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at Twitter@sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed Gaudin RSS. Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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