MOUNTAIN VIEW (KCBS) – Forget about phoning home. If E.T. ever wants to phone planet Earth, the call may not connect.

The SETI Institute in Mountain View has suffered a major setback in the day-to-day operation of its deep space listening devices – the $5 million budget gap means those devices will be put in hibernation mode, dealing a massive blow to the search for life on other planets.

KCBS’ Matt Bigler Reports:

That SETI (Search For Extra-Terrestrial Life) Institute is now looking for other ways of funding the operation of its array of radio telescopes in Shasta County,

The telescopes, known as the Allen Telescope Array, are a joint project between the institute and the University of California at Berkeley’s Radio Astronomy Laboratory.   The SETI Institute provided the initial funding to build the array, while UC is responsible for the day-to-day operation. Federal and state funding cutbacks have forced UC to halt to the daily operation of the array, according to the institute.

“It’s challenging,” conceded SETI Institute CEO Tom Pierson. “We’re motivated to fix it just as we were in the 1990s when the NASA SETI program went away and I believe we can do so.”

Indeed, NASA had provided the financial backing for some early SETI projects, but that funding dried up under Congressional scrutiny, with some lawmakers criticizing the “chase” for Martians and flying saucers.

A subsequent private donor drive proved successful, which allowed the institute to build the 42 radio dishes that are now being shelved.

Last week, Pierson sent a letter to donors advising them that those dishes were simply being put into “hibernation” – describing them as being kept safe, though in a nonfunctioning mode.

Meanwhile, Pierson was pinning his hopes on the U.S. Air Force, hoping that agency’s budget would allow for support of the SETI program – reasoning that the institute’s dishes could help the Air Force track space debris.

Without question, though, the dishes would remain off until funding is secured, and that could translate into a missed call from E.T.

“Sure, yeah, we might miss something but we would hope whatever’s out there is going to be you know, an ongoing broadcast that could later be detected,” he reasoned.

Pierson was confident there was a valid reason to get the dishes fired up again.

“NASA’s incredible Kepler mission is actually giving us our first really valid targets where we’re pointing at planetary systems that we know are out there around other stars,” he explained, “and that’s why we are extremely motivated to get the array back online and get back to work.”

(© 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

Comments (7)
  1. Philip says:


    It is a waste of money in any case.

  2. Mark says:

    Your article is misleading. It is not the SETI Institute that is having the shortfall, it is UC Berkeley that is suffering the shorfall. UCB is responsible for day-to-day operation costs of the radio telescope site where the Allen array is located.

  3. Joe says:

    So is the Catholic church then Phillip

  4. deb says:

    Busy looking for aliens spending millions of dollars, while people are starving and homeless.
    Priorities are a mess!

    1. Ajay says:

      deb – What part of this article are you missing? They’re NOT spending “millions of dollars.” They’re broke… which is why the search is being suspended. You might sleep better at night knowing that SETI is privately funded, most probably by philanthropists with an interest in astronomy and space science. I have no reason to believe why some of these same folks wouldn’t also care about the homeless and starving population, so I can’t really comment on their priorities. All I can hope is that you’re putting your own money where your mouth is….

  5. frank says:

    Sounds like an easy choice when times get tough. If you could list the items that were not cut, but just escaped being eliminated, the soundness of this decision would be evident.

  6. Mulder says:

    Even though I am a believer that intelligent alien life must statistically exist there (in a near-infinite Universe, chances would actually be rather high), shutting down the dishes during the economic crisis still seems like a good idea. The U.S. is suffering an astronomical defeceit (pun intended), and we need to think about the people on Earth first.

    They’ll still be out there – pausing the search isn’t going to matter much in the grand scheme of things. Let’s shut it down for a while, and about 90% of other government programs while we’re at it.

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