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By rights, SETI - the search for extraterrestrial intelligence - should be entering its golden age. After decades of begging or borrowing time on other people's telescopes to scan the skies for repetitive radio signals suggesting intelligent life, SETI scientists finally got their own equipment a few years ago: the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) in California. The Kepler satellite, which has found more than 1,200 possible planets around other stars so far, has handed the ATA a bonanza of promising new targets, with more to come.
So it was especially distressing to SETI fans when a letter went out a couple of days ago from Tom Pierson, CEO of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. "Effective this week," he wrote, "the ATA has been placed into hibernation due to funding shortfalls for operations of the Hat Creek Radio Observatory (HCRO) where the ATA is located." Admits Jill Tarter, the Institute's research director, "We've been in better shape."
"If you think of SETI as not just research but exploration," says SETI Institute Senior Astronomer Seth Shostak, "this is like sending Captain Cook to the South Pacific but not giving him any food or supplies." (Shostak, who seems to have nautical analogies to burn, told the San Jose Mercury News that the suspension is like "the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria being put into dry dock.")
"We're hoping," says Tarter, "that the public will speak up about how important SETI is.""It's really frustrating," says Tarter. "We're here with 1,235 gorgeous new exoplanets from Kepler. This is the first time ever we've been able to say 'we know good places to look, we're not just guessing about which stars might have planets.'" MIT physicists Philip Morrison and Giuseppe Cocconi observed in a 1959 Nature paper that laid the intellectual groundwork for SETI, "The probability of success is difficult to estimate," they wrote, "but if we never search, the chance of success is zero."