News

SETI puts search for sentient life on hold

Mountain View organization seeks funding to continue cosmic research

The Mountain View-based SETI Institute announced April 22 that it is powering down its array of antennae used to comb the cosmos for hints of intelligent extraterrestrial life.

Jill Tartar, director of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute, said that cuts on the federal and state level, coupled with the recession, have resulted in a dearth of funding at the University of California, Berkeley, which runs the antennae array for SETI.

According to Tartar, U.C. Berkeley recently informed SETI that it cannot afford to operate the Allen Telescope Array -- SETI's field of large and small satellite-dish-shaped antennae in Northern California. It is used to monitor space for transmissions, in the hopes of finding a signal that may have been broadcast intentionally or inadvertently by sentient beings elsewhere in the universe.

The university will put the array, located at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory between Mount Lassen and Mount Shasta, into "hibernation," meaning that no signals will be collected for SETI research.

"A perfect storm" of cuts led to the U.C. Berkeley decision, Tartar said. There was the federal government's inability to pass a budget, for one -- "It's hard to start new projects on a continuing resolution," she said. Additionally, cuts from the National Science Foundation, which reduced its University Radio Observatory funding to Berkeley, forced the university to cut its staff at Hat Creek by about 90 percent.

California's budget woes also loomed large, as public universities across the state are feeling the impact of an estimated $25.4 billion budget shortfall. And complicating matters further, the recession has made it difficult to raise private money, Tartar said.

Still, Tartar said, SETI is doing all it can to raise the money to keep the Allen Telescope Array -- named after Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft -- up and running. That includes seeking major funding sources as well as accepting private individual donations on its website, SETI.org.

Tartar said that the work SETI is doing is highly valuable -- even in trying economic times.

"The human race has been asking this question for millennia," she said. "We have been asking ourselves how we fit into the cosmos for as long as we've had recorded history."

Taking a long view of human history, Tartar spoke whimsically about the potential for SETI to bring about a fundamental paradigm shift in human consciousness.

"Ultimately, I think SETI is incredibly important to help people everywhere step back a bit and look at themselves, and look at humanity, with a more cosmic perspective," Tartar said. "From space you don't see international borders."

Tartar believes that if SETI were to find conclusive evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth, it would "trivialize the differences between humans overnight."

Comments

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Posted by allen
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Apr 26, 2011 at 4:59 pm

Why did Paul Allen give them money to build the array, but no money to operate it? Was he demanding that tax dollars pay for operating his project?


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Posted by Voice_Vigilante
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Apr 26, 2011 at 7:04 pm

"...said that cuts on the federal and state level..."
I believe this should be ...at the federal and state level...


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Posted by group endomorphism
a resident of North Whisman
on Apr 26, 2011 at 11:23 pm

Here is how i see it, its nearly worthless with out making contact. However if and or when its made then its priceless and we should spent more.

Its akin to a circuit with a switch or a logic gate.


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Posted by Doctor Killjoy
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Apr 26, 2011 at 11:38 pm

SETI was just a waste of time anyway, and a total financial boondoggle, to say the least. We have bigger problems we need to solve here on Earth first, before we'll ever be ready to welcome anyone from "out there". And we are no where near mature enough as a planet to have any business making any sort of contact.

No way. To think otherwise is to be ignorant and arrogant. On a planet that can't decide definitively whether we're descended from apes or some so-called "godly creation", we aren't even close, by a long shot.

Right now, we're just galactic background noise, of no consequence whatsoever to any "higher" civilization, if it exists. And if *this* (us, here on Earth) is *it*, then we are royally fouled up to the maximum.


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Posted by Konrad M. Sosnow
a resident of another community
on Apr 27, 2011 at 2:15 pm

Are we alone? is a question that many have pondered for generations. Pure research, basic research, or fundamental research is research carried out to increase understanding of fundamental principles. Many times the end results have no direct or immediate commercial benefits: pure research can be thought of as arising out of curiosity.

The Bay Area has long been home to basic research. SLAC,NASA, Stanford, CAL, and UC Santa Cruz are known for their research. Many Nobel prizes have been won by local scientists.


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Posted by SETI Member
a resident of another community
on Apr 28, 2011 at 1:30 am

@allen: Maybe UC Berkeley, the feds, etc. had told SETI that they'd sponsor the array if it were built, I don't know. I don't think Paul Allen would have funded it if they hadn't been fairly sure of a revenue source for operating costs — which they had, for a while.

@group: I see my own (tiny) financial contribution to SETI as that one very small portion of one's income that should be placed in a long-odds but potentially-large-payout investment. In this case, very long odds but a potentially very large payout.

@Dr. Killjoy: We may not be in a position to communicate with the aliens, anyway. If their signal comes from, say, a million light-years away, it'll take our response a million years to get to them, and both our civilization and theirs will probably be unrecognizable. What we may gain is knowledge that is transmitted in their signal. Even if they're relatively close by, there will probably be a (lengthy) debate about what and whether to reply, and/or a multiplicity of replies from a variety of people/governments. I think that any civilization smart enough to send us a message will be smart enough to investigate carefully any replies they get from us, and not make too many assumptions.


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Posted by Alex M.
a resident of Willowgate
on Apr 28, 2011 at 11:53 am

First sentence: "antennae"? That term is reserved for insects and other arthropods.

SETI is a high-risk high-payoff experiment. Nothing wrong with that, in my mind. Some of the best breakthroughs in science come from such experiments.


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Posted by hank wong
a resident of Whisman Station
on Apr 28, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Per Dr. Killjoy, while we may not be actually 'communicate' with the aliens due to the vast time and space, but imagine what new perspective we will gain when we detect a signal from another civilization. During the 60's, the Earth rise photo taken from the moon gave the human race a new perspective of our world and started many one-world initiatives such as Earth Day and the Green movement.


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Posted by NeHi
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Apr 28, 2011 at 5:52 pm

Sentient: responsive to or conscious of sense impressions. That's Webster's idea, not mine.


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Posted by Dick Guertin
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Apr 28, 2011 at 8:17 pm

The Milky Way Galaxy is about 100,000 Light-Years across. A Light-Year is a distance, and it's how far a light beam, or radio signal, travels through space in one year. There are 200 billion stars in the Milky Way, and only 24 are within a 12-Light-Year sphere around our Sun. The vast majority are over 150 Light Years away from us. Now, put yourself on a planet circling one of those stars, as close as 150 Light Years away. What do they hear from Earth? NOTHING. We've existed here for thousands of years, but we only started sending radio signals around 1900. We've been transmitting for 111 year, so those radio signals have made it 111 Light Years into space, not far enough to reach that planets 150 Light Years away. So they don't hear us, and if they started sending radio signals when we started, we don't hear them either. Furthermore, the farther away we listen, the farther back in time we travel. A signal sent from a planet 1000 Light Years away would take 1000 years to reach us. What would we do about it? Not much. Any response would take 1000 year to get back to them, and after a 2000 year round trip, who would be listening? Also, a radio signal disperses as it travels through space. Compared to the "noise" our Sun produces, our faint radio signal gets destroyed by the Sun before it leaves our Solar System.

So, SETI is a waste of money. Sorry, but we've got better thing to do with that money than scan the skies.


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Posted by USA
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Apr 30, 2011 at 3:40 pm

USA is a registered user.

SETI was unable to find intelligent life in Washington DC.


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