By rights, SETI the search for extraterrestrial intelligence should be entering its golden age. After decades of begging or borrowing time on other people's telescopes to scan the skies for repetitive radio signals suggesting intelligent life, SETI scientists finally got their own equipment a few years ago: the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) in California. The Kepler satellite, which has found more than 1,200 possible planets around other stars so far, has handed the ATA a bonanza of promising new targets, with more to come. And there is no shortage of powerful electronics and computers to analyze any incoming data information-processing muscle that SETI pioneer Frank Drake couldn't have imagined when he first started listening to the heavens back in 1961.
So it was especially distressing to SETI fans when a letter went out a couple of days ago from Tom Pierson, CEO of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. "Effective this week," he wrote, "the ATA has been placed into hibernation due to funding shortfalls for operations of the Hat Creek Radio Observatory (HCRO) where the ATA is located." Admits Jill Tarter, the Institute's research director, "We've been in better shape."
It's not the first time SETI has faced funding challenges. In the early 1980's, Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire ridiculed the whole idea of looking for ET and forced NASA to stop funding the project. In the end, a personal visit by Carl Sagan got him to reverse course. But then in 1993, Nevada Sen. Richard Bryan did it again, pointing out (weirdly) that "not a single Martian has yet been found." Since then, SETI searches have relied mostly on private money notably, on the nearly $25 million donated by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to help build the ATA, on the grounds of the University of California's Hat Creek Observatory.
But Allen's donation, along with money from the SETI Institute, were sufficient only for the construction of the array, not for its ongoing operations. That responsibility went the University of California and like most public institutions in California, the University is more or less broke (it's gotten so bad that astronomers at Berkeley have been known to vacuum their own offices because so many maintenance workers have been let go). Thanks to the disastrous economy, meanwhile, private donations to the SETI Institute have dropped off. And the National Science Foundation, which also helps fund Hat Creek, is suffering along with every other institution that depends on the federal budget.
"If you think of SETI as not just research but exploration," says SETI Institute Senior Astronomer Seth Shostak, "this is like sending Captain Cook to the South Pacific but not giving him any food or supplies." (Shostak, who seems to have nautical analogies to burn, told the San Jose Mercury News that the suspension is like "the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria being put into dry dock.")
But Shostak insists that all is not yet lost. "ATA is in hibernation," he says, "not embalmed." A skeleton staff is maintaining the array's 42 radio dishes, computers and other electronics so that if new funding does come through, the search will be ready to resume. The SETI Institute has issued new pleas for private donations to help make that happen, and it's conceivable though not overwhelmingly likely that the National Science Foundation will somehow find some money stashed away.
"We're hoping," says Tarter, "that the public will speak up about how important SETI is." A better bet is the Air Force, which is considering buying time on ATA for use as a monitoring station to keep tabs on orbital space debris that could threaten satellites.
While ATA is the most important SETI installation, it isn't the only one, and that keeps alien hunters from despairing completely. The public often assumes "SETI" and "The SETI Institute" are one and the same, but the former is an entire field of astronomy, while the latter is just one institution. There's an ongoing SETI search using the giant Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, and Harvard astronomer Paul Horowitz is looking for aliens that might communicate with lasers rather than radio beams. "The Italians have a pretty good SETI search going on as well," says Shostak, "and there's a lot of interest in China as well."
Still, the shutdown is a blow to those who care about whether we're alone in the universe. "It's really frustrating," says Tarter. "We're here with 1,235 gorgeous new exoplanets from Kepler. This is the first time ever we've been able to say 'we know good places to look, we're not just guessing about which stars might have planets.'"
It's even better than that: Kepler is almost certain to find not just planets, but planets of about the size and temperature of Earth. That doesn't necessarily guarantee life, let alone intelligent life, let alone intelligent life that happens to use lasers or radio waves to communicate between the stars. But as MIT physicists Philip Morrison and Giuseppe Cocconi observed in a 1959 Nature paper that laid the intellectual groundwork for SETI, "The probability of success is difficult to estimate," they wrote, "but if we never search, the chance of success is zero."