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SETI Now Searches for Funds Instead of ETs; Interview With Jill Tarter

| April 27, 2011
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Allen Telescope Array

About 350 telescopes search for extraterrestial life at the Allen Telescope Array in Northern California. Kathleen Franklin/Flickr

I rarely turned my computer off in college. It would hum away close to my bed, because I had donated my processing power to SETI, the once-government funded Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Raised on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Ray Bradbury and Carl Sagan, it seemed so absolutely certain to me that there is life out there.

There have always been arguments that even if there was other life in the universe, we would never find it — space is too vast, creation too haphazard; we’re searching at the wrong time. Many people think even looking is, well, crazy, something to be relegated to an FBI basement with Agent Mulder.

Which is why it was not so surprising to hear of the shutdown of the Allen Telescope Array, where SETI, located in Mountain View, runs its searches for extraterrestrial life. The array has been mothballed due to money problems. In these days of neverending budget cuts, dreaming of the stars is a much harder sell.

Yet it is hard to imagine a more frustrating time for such an interruption to have occurred. Scientists have discovered 1,235 exoplanets, some of which could be hospitable to life. So now we know where to search, a mission that SETI CEO Tom Pierson estimates would cost $5 million.

And it’s not just SETI that is losing out, but research projects from the Radio Astronomy Lab, at the University of California, Berkeley, which runs the Hat Creek Radio Observatory. SETI contributed the funds, and Cal operated the telescopes.

For decades the observatory was largely funded by SETI donations, grants from the National Science Foundation and the state of California via Berkeley. Now, federal and state budget shortfalls have cut back observatory funding to one-tenth of what it used to be, leaving the array in “hibernation.”

In a letter to supporters, Pierson said that it costs about $1.5 million a year to operate the array, plus another million to fund “science efforts.”

KQED QUEST’s Amy Standen on Tuesday spoke to SETI’s Director of Research, Dr. Jill Tarter, about the cuts. A character based on Tarter was portrayed by Jodie Foster in the movie Contact, from Carl Sagan’s novel about earth’s contact with an extraterrestrial civilization.

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Tarter says that it’s “ironic and frustrating” that the project is shutting down just as NASA’s Kepler project has discovered so many exo-planets. She points out that the Allen array is “the best tool for the job” since it was built specifically to look for intelligent life on other planets. And other arrays would not be able to donate enough time for the searches, she says.

Watch a QUEST interview with Tarter several years ago.

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About the Author ()

Lisa Pickoff-White is KQED's Senior Interactive News Producer. Her work has been honored with awards from the Online News Association, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Society of Professional Journalists and SXSW Interactive. Lisa specializes in visual journalism, including photography and data. Reach Lisa Pickoff-White at lpickoffwhite@kqed.org.

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