Mountain View Voice

News - August 19, 2011

SETI raises $200K to stay operational

by Nick Veronin

The Mountain View-based SETI Institute, which had to shutter many of its alien-seeking antennas earlier this year due to the loss of federal and state funding, has announced that it will reopen its 42-dish array in Northern California after raising more than $200,000 from the public.

According to Seth Shostak, a senior SETI astronomer, the money was raised in less than two months through the SETI Stars Program, and some of that money came from Jodi Foster, who played a scientist searching for alien life in the film "Contact."

Shostak said that SETI intends to combine the money with funding from the Air Force, which uses SETI's telescope to track satellites. If the Air Force money comes through, which Shostak believes is likely, SETI will be able to open the array in a month or two and keep it open until the end of the year — giving the organization time to raise more money.

SETI had to shut down the array on April 22, due to federal and state cuts. Back then, institute director Jill Tarter told the Voice that a "perfect storm" of economic conditions, including the recession, had contributed to a dearth in funding at the University of California, Berkeley, which runs SETI's Allen Telescope Array — which is named for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and is located at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory between Mount Lassen and Mount Shasta.

The radio telescopes, which have been in "hibernation" since the end of April, are used to perpetually listen for intentional or inadvertent transmissions produced extra terrestrial beings. SETI has yet to observe any such transmissions, but according to Shostak, it would be "very strange" if Earth were the only place intelligent life exists.

"The data are suggesting that there are about a billion habitable worlds just in our galaxy," Shostak said, referring to planets within the Milky Way that have the potential to support life. "And there are a hundred billion other galaxies if you don't like ours."

Shostak understands the reasoning behind the cuts. "Economic times are tough," he said, noting that programs like SETI are often the first to be scaled back in dire fiscal times, as people perceive his institute's goals to be non-essential.

But, both he and Tarter said that the work they are doing is vital.

"When you think you're the only kid on the block, and you all of a sudden find out that there are other kids on the block — that is important to know," Shostak said. "It affects your life forever, and it affects every generation that comes after you."

"The human race has been asking this question for millennia," Tarter 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, Tarter 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," Tarter said. "From space you don't see international boarders."

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

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