November 27, 2014

30.04.11: Pulling the Plug on Hat Creek; SETI on-hold?

Time expousre of one of the ATA instruments.

(Credit: SETI Institute/Seth Shostak. Used with Permission).

Amidst news of royal weddings, birth certificate releases, and the usual celebrity goings on, troubling news recently came out of the University of California at Berkley. In a scene right out of certain Hollywood movie, the National Science Foundation’s funding for its Hat Creek Radio Observatory will be reduced to a tenth, effectively shutting down the Allen Telescope Array. No one can describe what a blow to space science this is. First conceptualized by SETI innovator Frank Drake, the ATA visualizes the strategy of using a farm of several small 6-meter Gregorian style antennae scanning the sky continuously with a very wide field of view at radio frequency range of 0.5 to 11.2 GHz. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen breathed life into the idea with a $30 dollar donation in 2001, and the array ultimately envisions 350 telescopes. Currently, the first phase of 42 dishes was completed in 2007. The budget cut effectively shutters the project until further notice…practically before it’s begun! In the past, SETI has always piggybacked on what has been deemed more “serious” science; the ATA was to represent a first true dedicated SETI program. SETI needs about 1.5 million US$ to operate the ATA, plus another 1.0 million to maintain sciencetific research. The SETI Institute is seeking funds from a partnership with the USAF, using the ATA to track space debris, but of course, this puts us back in the same old situation of SETI becoming an afterthought project.

And this all comes at a time when the Chinese are building a 500-meter radio telescope, Europe is gearing up LOFAR, there’s talk of the MeerKAT radio telescope being placed in the Australian Outback or South Africa, and we could go on and on…it seems that while we report more and more on closures such as Arecibo or ATA, other nations are more than happy to take the helm.

In short, don’t let our nation and our species turn away from radio astronomy and SETI research. Sure, we need to feed and educate our kids, go to work, and passionately defend what we know is right, but SETI represents the really grand questions we do these things for. “Why are we here?” and “Are we alone?” may represent the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs in their appeal to existentialism, but if we stop asking those questions, we’re left with brute survival. Donate to SETI. Write your congress-person. Use citizen science programs such as SETI@Home and the new SETIQuest. Hey, we wouldn’t want a race of intelligent grasshopper-like aliens to receive the message Arecibo beamed at M13 in 1974 and wonder “Whatever happened to those guys?”   Don’t let SETI fall to the wayside!       

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