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SETI has announced that it is shutting down its iconic Allen Telescope Array, a field of radio telescopes that listen to radio waves from outer space, hoping to hear signals from an extraterrestrial civilization. SETI’s mission is to explore the origins and prevalence of life in the universe in order to explain humanity’s place among the stars.
On April, SETI CEO Tom Pierson told donors that the telescopes would be put into “hibernation”, safe but nonfunctional, because of insufficient funding. The news is especially sad to astronomers since the space-based telescope Kepler recently detected 1,235 new possible planets.
“There is a huge irony,” SETI Director Jill Tarter said, “that a time when we discover so many planets to look at, we don’t have the operating funds to listen.”
SETI has had funding problems since 1994, when Sen. Richard Bryan of Nevada convinced Congress that funding the program wasn’t worth the cost. SETI has been reliant on private funding since then, which has provided the resources to build the Allen Telescope Array. But now SETI cannot handle the day-to-day cost of running the array, which adds up to $5 million over the next two years.
The number seems frustratingly achievable, especially compared to the trillions the United States spends on its national budget.
SETI senior astronomer Seth Shostak said, “Honestly, if everybody contributed just 3 extra cents on their 1040 tax forms, we could find out if we have cosmic company.”