Telescopes searching for alien activity shut down due to lack of funding

Photo: Geoffrey Bower is the director of the Radio Astronomy Laboratory, which ran the daily operations of the 42 radio telescopes in the Allen Telescope Array.
Karen Ling/Staff
Geoffrey Bower is the director of the Radio Astronomy Laboratory, which ran the daily operations of the 42 radio telescopes in the Allen Telescope Array.

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A collection of telescopes that UC Berkeley researchers used to survey interstellar skies for star explosions and alien activity has been shut down due to lack of funding.

The 42 radio telescopes in the Allen Telescope Array - located northeast of Berkeley near Redding, Calif. - are run jointly through the SETI Institute and the UC Berkeley Radio Astronomy Laboratory and were used to scan the skies for alien signals for the last time April 15 when funding sources ran dry, according to a letter sent to donors Monday from SETI Institute CEO Tom Pierson.

The 14 UC Berkeley faculty, post-doctoral students and graduate students involved with the research said the timing to suspend research could not have been worse.

"We've been conducting research projects that study the variant sky with the Array," said Geoffrey Bower, assistant professor of astronomy and director of the Radio Astronomy Laboratory, which runs the day-to-day operations of the array. "Those projects are suspended, and we are focusing on producing results from projects and less on the collection of data."

Jill Tarter, director of the SETI Institute, said scientists at the institute planned to spend the next two years listening for artificial signals from newly discovered planets­.

While funds from private donors such as the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation allowed the institute to raise the $50 million necessary to set up the telescopes, the lab received much of its funding from the National Science Foundation to listen for explosions, eruptions and magnified stars in the transient sky. The institute, meanwhile, received the majority of its funding from private donors.

Although its primary source of funding was the National Science Foundation, the lab is looking for other funding sources, including the United States Air Force and the United States Naval Observatory, Bower said.

According to Tarter, it costs about $1.5 million per year to maintain and repair the telescopes and another $1 million per year to fund the research that SETI and UC Berkeley researchers carry out.

As of April 15, the telescopes have been put in a "hibernation" state, meaning radio antennas on the telescopes have been turned off, but a minimal staff is still stationed at the site to keep the technology safe, Tarter said.

"We are still spending money on the telescopes, but the costs are much reduced," she said.

Currently, there are no plans to dismantle the telescopes, although Bower said the situation has not been assessed very far.

"We are at a stage where we are evaluating what the future holds," Bower said. "There is no guarantee that the array will continue, but we are looking at other funding sources and what the long-term (value) is."

Leo Blitz, a UC Berkeley professor of astronomy who was director of the Radio Astronomy Laboratory when the array was just being established, said unless an outside party can be recruited to operate the telescopes, the lab has no immediate plans to restart the telescopes.

Tarter said both the institute and the astronomers will continue aspects of their research using other telescopes that the lab operates, as well as other national telescopes. She added that the array was unique in that it allowed UC Berkeley astronomers to study galaxies that changed over time while also allowing institute scientists to listen for engineered signals from the bodies that the astronomers were studying.

"We didn't build the telescopes to turn them off," Tarter said.


Contact Amruta Trivedi at [email protected]

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