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SETI puts search for alien life on hold to search for dollars

outer spaceIf there are aliens out there, it looks like we’re going to have to wait for them to come to us before we find them.

The California-based SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, a not-for-profit organization that exists “to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe,” has had to call a halt to its search for extra-terrestrial life because it has run out of money.

The search, carried out in a joint venture between SETI and the UC Berkeley Radio Astronomy Laboratory, was being conducted by a field of 42 dish-like antennae situated some 300 miles north of San Francisco in the mountains of northern California. The project, known as the Allen Telescope Array (ATA), has been scanning the skies since 2007. Operating costs for the ATA are thought to be in the region of $2.5m a year, $1m of which is needed to process all the data collected by the dishes.

In an email (PDF) sent to donors last week, SETI Institute CEO Tom Pierson said that the ATA had been “placed into hibernation due to funding shortfalls for operations of the Hat Creek Radio Observatory where the ATA is located.” Pierson went on to say that it would remain in hibernation “pending future funding or some alternative solution.”

According to a report in the Seattle Times, SETI scientists say that the announcement couldn’t have come at a worse time. Apparently around 50 or 60 of more than a thousand new planets recently discovered by a telescope on a space satellite could, because of their specific location in space, have the right temperatures for sustaining some form of life. “There’s plenty of cosmic real estate that looks promising,” said Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at SETI. The problem, Shostak went on to say, is that “we’ve lost the instrument that’s best for zeroing in on these better targets.”

With the situation being what it is, SETI needs to pay the bills before it can move on. SETI has attracted wealthy donors in the past. The Allen Telescope Array received $30 million from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (see a connection with the name there?) when it was built.

In his email, SETI’s Tom Pierson reassured existing donors by informing them that “the important work of our Center for SETI Research continues.”

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