SETI is Dead

SETI is dead. Or at least, its major organ has failed, and is now in a state of suspended animation, desperately awaiting a cash transfusion. Seth Shostak explains:

The Allen Telescope Array (ATA), a major instrument designed to speed up our hunt for intelligent beings elsewhere in the galaxy, has been turned off.

On April 15, this phalanx of small antennas, built to eavesdrop on signals that might reach us from civilizations hundreds of trillions of miles distant, was put into park, and its multimillion channel receivers powered down. It's as if Columbus's armada of ships, having barely cleared Cadiz, were suddenly ordered back to Spain.

The reason for the shutdown is both prosaic and lamentable. Money. The Array was built as a joint project between the SETI Institute (my employer) and the University of California at Berkeley's Radio Astronomy Laboratory. The former raised the funds to construct the instrument, and UC Berkeley was responsible for operations. But the grievous financial situation of the State of California and reduced funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) have sharply curtailed the university's research budget, and private donations haven't yet been adequate to keep the Array in operation.

Astronomer Franck Marchis also discusses the shutdown on his blog, noting that SETI is holding out hope that the U.S. Air Force Space Command may come on-board as a partner at the ATA for its "Space Situational Awareness" program - a project which will detect, track, identify and catalogue all man-made objects in orbit around Earth.

In the meantime though, SETI wants you! Or more precisely, a donation, aiming $5million. Jill Tarter told MSNBC she hopes "the public will get inspired to help us explore those Kepler worlds", while Seth Shostak ends his HuffPo article with a call to arms:

You're a member of the first generation possessing technology good enough to turn up some cosmic company, and your financial support could restart this instrument. We can never prove that we're alone in the universe. But the Allen Telescope Array could prove that we're not.

Here's a tip to Jill and Seth. If you want financial support from the portion of the public interested in the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, maybe it wasn't such a wise move to hop in bed with CSICOP and start talking down your nose at that public, when many skeptics think you're just as fringe as those same topics. Just sayin'.

Personally though I hope they get back up and running soon - in government spending terms, that's not even a drop in a bucket, and I'm all for trying to answer the big questions...even if I may doubt that SETI is taking the right approach to do so.

Previously on TDG:

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Rick MG's picture
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2 May 2004
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5 days 11 hours

I've got an inkling aliens are turning their radio signals back on now. ;-)

Greg wrote:

If you want financial support from the portion of the public interested in the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, maybe it wasn't such a wise move to hop in bed with CSICOP and start talking down your nose at that public...

This +1.

What hope is there for private enterprise (Robert Bigelow perhaps, or even Richard Branson) to jump in and fund SETI? I think this is a possibility, although how they'd make a return from their investment is another question. In the meantime, I still have Carl Sagan's Contact to reread. "Idealism" is not a dirty word.

~ * ~

@levitatingcat

red pill junkie's picture
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I'm not sure Bigelow would be interested. Why would he, when he had been financing MUFON and the STAR team —something which ended pretty badly BTW— and he also funded research in the infamous Skinwalker ranch? Bigelow is probably aware that contact with the Others ha a broader spectrum than the SETI approach.

Maybe Allen would be willing to save the day once again. It seem they haven't actually contacted him yet.

Or maybe the solution is for Obama to step in and declare that phoning ET is tax deductible ;)

It's not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me...
It's all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

Red Pill Junkie
_______________
@red_pill_junkie

lightkeeper's picture
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After 40 years of listening where are the signals anyway? I have never understood their method of tuning in to a star and just going through the billions of frequencies. Scanning for a signal as tuning a radio to find an interesting station is all we can do. Instead of tuning in to one star why don't they wide sweep the universe with all frequency bandwidths? If someone is broadcasting a signal then that would be the one to listen to. I certainly don't understand why such a meticulous study is necessary. If no signals have been received by now what are the chances we are missing them. Maybe aliens with advanced technologies and societies are afraid of being eaten if they make a peep. Maybe our way is just too primitive for the vastness of space.

Greg's picture
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lightkeeper wrote:

After 40 years of listening where are the signals anyway? I have never understood their method of tuning in to a star and just going through the billions of frequencies. Scanning for a signal as tuning a radio to find an interesting station is all we can do. Instead of tuning in to one star why don't they wide sweep the universe with all frequency bandwidths?

An essay I wrote a long while back explaining the history and thinking behind SETI might help explain why:

Narrow-band signals are searched for because they are characteristic of an artificial transmission: the narrowest naturally occurring microwave frequency is about 300 hertz, produced by interstellar masers. Therefore searching with a higher resolution than this is the best way to detect a signal from an extraterrestrial civilisation. Also, the narrower a signal is, the more efficient it is to send, hence narrow-band signals would seem the obvious choice for broadcasting (Billingham and Tarter 1993, p. 262). However, searching for such narrow frequency bands amongst a 10-gigahertz spectrum (which, it must be remembered, is also only a small portion of the overall microwave spectrum) is a huge task. To search the whole spectrum in 1 hertz bands would, for example, take 10 billion channels per point source observed. For this reason, many searches have centred on certain 'magic frequencies'. The most predominant is the area around 1.42 gigahertz, the emission line for hydrogen - considered by many to be the most probable 'standard interstellar frequency' (MacRobert & LePage 1999). As search technologies have improved the spectrum covered has increased. The area from 1.42 up to 1.64 gigahertz (the emission line for Hydroxyl, OH), known as 'the waterhole' due to it's boundaries (H and OH = H2O), has recently been the focus of some searches (Hoang-Binh 1985, p. 493).

Even with the advances in technology, it is obvious that large parts of the spectrum remain unchartered. Unfortunately, scanning the whole spectrum at this point in time can only be achieved through a wide-band survey, which offers a lower chance of success. Only through further improvements in technology will a narrow-band search of the entire spectrum be remotely feasible. For this reason searches are separated into sky surveys and targeted searches (Cullers et al 1985, p. 38). Sky surveys are methodical sweeps of the entire sky visible from each telescope location. If a signal is strong enough and in the correct frequency band, this search should pick it up. [ NASA)] Targeted searches concentrate on certain points in the sky - the 'good suns', some 1000 stars similar to our own sun (type F, G and K) which lie within 100 light-years of Earth (Billingham and Tarter 1993, p. 264). Obviously, the targeted searches can be conducted much more thoroughly than sky searches, however, they rely on signals coming only from these points.

Hope that helps.

Kind regards,
Greg
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You monkeys only think you're running things
@DailyGrail

Live's picture
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Shutdown NPR! Shutdown Welfare! Shutdown Community Programs!

I want to see this country turn into the true war machine it is. KILL EVERYTHING!!!

Sometimes we get what we need instead of what we want.

red pill junkie's picture
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But the grievous financial situation of the State of California and reduced funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) have sharply curtailed the university's research budget, and private donations haven't yet been adequate to keep the Array in operation.

See what you get for not legalizing marijuana?? ;)

It's not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me...
It's all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

Red Pill Junkie
_______________
@red_pill_junkie

lightkeeper's picture
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Thanks for the comment on Set's search methods. I still support the effort and did so at its beginning. To know that Earthlings are not the only intelligence in the Universe has been a question I hoped could be answered before I move on. Another thought is of the communications between the alien crafts seen around the Earth's atmosphere. While it can't be predicated where they will be seen signal detections other than radar could be used to find their communication transmissions. Surely as many crafts are report they are communicating with each other or a base location. I am not convinced that the UFO crafts are actually alien even though they have been seen by credible people from most places around the world. I have interviewed some of the people from Roswell, New Mexico with the crashed alien craft associations and am convinced that they sincerely believe the alien story is very real. Perhaps the crafts communicate with each other in some form other than radio waves. If this little phenomenon could be figured out it could give us a new method to be searching for distant extraterrestrial signals as well. Why would alien crafts journey light years to Earth and flash colored lights in our skies without knowing a territorial nature that we would blast them out of the sky? This doesn't seem logical that they would want their presence known if trying to monitor a world possibly filled with hostile life forms. A level of intelligence that could reach the Earth should not be so naive unless they have been studying us and try to blend in as best as possible.

Greg's picture
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Going by SETI's 2008 tax return, 24 employees are on $100,000+, with research scientists earning around $150,000 per year (am I reading this wrong?). Makes me think twice about donating any of my meagre wages...

Kind regards,
Greg
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You monkeys only think you're running things
@DailyGrail

Inannawhimsey's picture
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Maybe it's time to get Privatized :3

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