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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: