Donors helping to reboot California listening post for aliens
Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute was forced to shut down its radio telescope array designed to hear potential signals from aliens.
Sat, Aug 13, 2011 at 06:51 PM
DONORS: Officials with the nonprofit institute appealed for donations, and this week they said the total raised had slightly surpassed their $200,000 goal. (Photo: SETI Institute)
LOS ANGELES - A California institute plans to reboot its listening post for intelligent life in space, with private donations to replace government cutbacks.
Back in April, due to a lack of funding, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute was forced to shut down its $30 million radio telescope array designed to hear potential signals from aliens — if they exist.
But officials with the nonprofit institute in northern California's Mountain View appealed for donations. This week they said the total raised had slightly surpassed their $200,000 goal.
That was due to generosity from more than 2,400 donors, including actress Jodie Foster and Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, they said.
As a result, the institute said it expects to restart the telescope array in September and run it at least through the end of the year.
The plan is still dependent upon the center receiving an unspecified amount of funds from the U.S. Air Force to track space debris that could damage satellites.
Thomas Pierson, chief executive of the SETI Institute, said he expects the nearly finalized deal with the Air Force will, combined with the private funds, allow the group's so-called Allen Telescope Array to again listen for space chatter.
"For those who are interested in understanding whether intelligent life might be out there elsewhere in our galaxy, the Allen Telescope Array and our SETI team doing the research is the best bet," Pierson said.
The search for aliens is a scientific discipline currently underway by a small number of U.S. universities and groups in Australia, Argentina and Italy, Pierson said.
The Allen Telescope Array is the first instrument designed from the ground-up, with the goal of listening for signals from extraterrestrial life, Pierson said.
It is named after Microsoft Corp co-founder Paul Allen, one of its chief benefactors, and consists of dozens of dish-like antennas operated as one large radio telescope.
Located in a remote area in the shadow of Lassen Peak, east of Redding, California, it began initial operations in 2007, according to the SETI Institute.
The array is part of the Hat Creek Radio Observatory, a facility of the University of California, Berkeley.
The SETI project was hit hard by recent federal government budget cuts and by cost-savings at UC Berkeley.
Pierson said the 27-year-old SETI Institute, which aside from overseeing the telescope array also researches origins of life in extreme environments and conducts public education, had received two-thirds of its funding from government sources.
Now, the institute is in a "transition phase" as it seeks more private funds and ways to control costs in order to continue operating the telescope array beyond 2011, he said.
The array costs $1.5 million a year to run. Fortunately for the institute, it has high-profile advocates.
Oscar-winner Foster, who played an alien-seeking scientist in the 1997 film "Contact," explained her support in a statement on a fund-raising website created for the array.
"The Allen Telescope Array could turn science fiction into science fact, but only if it is actively searching the skies," she said.
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst)
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