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SETI Institute's search for extraterrestrial life hits a budgetary black hole

The Allen Telescope Array, run by the SETI Institute near Mt. Shasta, is like an enormous ear that listens for any sign of intelligent life in the universe. But a funding cutoff leaves the project in a nebulous state.

May 07, 2011|By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times
  • The Allen Telescope Array, run by the SETI Institute near Mt. Shasta, is like an enormous ear listening for any sign of intelligent life in the universe. But a funding cutoff has left it in limbo.
The Allen Telescope Array, run by the SETI Institute near Mt. Shasta, is… (Los Angeles Times )

Reporting from Hat Creek, Calif. — Software engineer Colby Gutierrez-Kraybill sat alone in an observatory in this volcanic valley near Mt. Shasta, staring out a picture window at storm clouds gathering over the world's largest instrument to search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

He had reason to look forlorn, surrounded by empty bookshelves, unmarked chalkboards and rows of tables where scientists from around the world once argued over the best direction to aim 42 radio telescopes designed to act as an enormous ear capable of scanning more than a million stars over 10 billion radio frequencies.

In its history, Hat Creek Radio Observatory researchers never heard any sign of intelligent life in the universe. But that didn't stop them from trying.

The budget crisis did.

Last month, the project ran out of operational funds — victim to shrinking grants and the state's financial straits — and the telescopes were switched off and pointed at the ground, perhaps indefinitely. Gutierrez-Kraybill, a computer expert, now is part of a two-man skeleton crew tasked with protecting the 90-acre observatory from the elements and vandals.

"It's a pretty sad situation," said Colby, who has lived at the facility, about 30 miles from the nearest community, since 2001. "If project officials cannot raise enough money by June 30 to keep the two of us on the payroll to take care of the equipment, structures and telescopes, they may have to dismantle everything and level this place.

"With enough money, we could get the observatory up and running again in one day," he added, visibly brightened by the dream of a windfall.

The nonprofit SETI Institute, the Bay Area organization that runs the Allen Telescope Array, is scrambling to keep the project alive. Proposals under consideration include helping the U.S. Air Force track space debris in return for operating funds, and a "citizen scientist" program that would enable people to link up with radio telescope receivers at a cost of about $5 per minute.

Under that program, participants lucky enough to be online if and when a signal from some alien race came through would share credit for the greatest discovery in the history of mankind.

"We are at an extraordinary juncture," Tom Pierson, the institute's chief executive officer, said in an interview. "We are focused on getting interim support, perhaps from a large donor. But there is a chance this could be the end of the Allen Telescope Array."

The search has always been plagued by a "giggle factor," which made it an easy target for lawmakers searching for ways to reduce state and federal budgets.

It was launched in 1984 by a handful of scientists who scrounged up funds for radio telescope receivers and computer equipment from wherever they could get them. In the early 1990s, NASA invested several million dollars in sophisticated monitoring equipment.

The search was based on the premise that alien races, like us, would use microwave transmissions and we might be able to hear them.

In 1993, Congress killed the funding. That could have spelled the end of the search, but large donors, including Hewlett-Packard executives and Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, pulled out their checkbooks to keep it alive.

SETI researchers for years relied on borrowed telescope time to scan thousands of stars for a signal that could have been produced only by someone else out there. All that changed in 2008, when the 42-telescope array was built here with a $30-million gift from Allen, for whom it is named.

The array was intended to be a first step toward development of a full 350-dish array, which the institute predicted would catch a promising signal every few hours, and a serious candidate every six months. But the institute was unable to attract enough donations and grants to expand it.

In mid-April, Pierson delivered the bad news to stakeholders, just as the array was being prepared to survey more than 50 recently discovered planets beyond our solar system that astronomers believe may be habitable.

Facing National Science Foundation grants totaling less than a tenth of their levels five years ago, and with worsening California budget shortfalls, the project jointly operated by UC Berkeley and the institute had been placed in what Pierson described as "hibernation mode."

The bottom line: It takes about $1.5 million a year to operate the array, and about $1 million a year to pay for SETI's researchers.

"It's as if Columbus' armada of ships, having barely cleared Cadiz, had been called back," lamented Seth Shostak, an institute astronomer based in Mountain View. "When the project began, no one knew whether planets beyond our solar system were rare or plentiful. Now, we know there could be hundreds of billions of planets in our Milky Way galaxy alone."

The project's loyal supporters include rancher Floyd Bidwell, 88, who runs 1,000 head on a nearby spread crisscrossed by streams teeming with rainbow trout.

Sitting behind the wheel of his dusty pickup, Bidwell, who said his ancestors were among the first settlers in California, shook his head and said, "I don't appreciate them turning off those telescopes.

"At first, folks around here were really shook up because they thought the place would attract the attention of other planets that might not be too happy about it," Bidwell said. "Some people talked about little green men kidnapping the ladies around here.

"But over time, those scientists became the best neighbors we could have," he added. "There's so much we don't know about outer space."

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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