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Wired.com talked with Jill Tarter about the shutdown and what it means for the future of SETI.
Wired.com: The dishes are in hibernation mode now. What exactly does that mean? Tarter: It means the array runs on a smaller staff. We keep the caretaker staff. We keep power on the antennas, so the cryogenics stay cold and they don’t get harmed. We just put them in a safe mode. But you can’t operate them, you can’t take data.
Wired.com: Does that mean you’re expecting to bring it back up? Tarter: We’re doing everything we possibly can to bring it out of hibernation. But that, you know, that requires new funding. We’re talking with the Air Force, and we’re hopeful for that. But we also need the public to step up and support SETI research, to keep that on an even keel. This unfortunate situation, coming at just the wrong time, when we were just beginning a two-year search of these Kepler worlds — we hope people understand the irony of that.
Wired.com: Tell me about the Kepler project. What were you going to do there? Tarter: Before Kepler launched, we knew about a couple of hundred exoplanets. Most of those were big or right next to their stars. Not likely to be habitable. The Kepler worlds are different. There are 68 of them that are about the same size as Earth, of which it’s calculated that 54 may be in the “Goldilocks” habitable zone. And there’s 1,235 of them altogether, which [extrapolated] gives us the statistic that we can expect 50 billion planets in the galaxy, and 500 million of those are likely to be habitable. The Kepler results have changed the way we can do our research. We can now point where we know there are likely to be good planet candidates. That’s a change. This is a fantastic new bounty of potential and information.
Wired.com: That makes it a particularly bad time to be shutting down the telescopes. Tarter: It’s a hugely frustrating time. [SETI senior astronomer] Seth Shostak is all over the place with a great one-liner: “It’s as if the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria were called back to dry dock.” The other thing we’re doing now, which we’ve never done before, is trying to get the world involved. We’re trying to open up this search so that it isn’t just done in a silo by a tiny priesthood of astronomers.