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Close Encounters Of The Broke Kind: SETI Hangs Up On E.T.

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Without the money to pay its day-to-day operating expenses, Mountain View's SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute has been forced to hit the hold button on its 42 extraterrestrial-seeking radio telescopes that scan the deep space skies for signs of alien civilization, reports the Daily News.

SETI Institute officials said:

"Effective this week, 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," SETI CEO Tom Pierson wrote in a letter to potential donors Friday (April 22). "Hibernation means that, starting this week, the equipment is unavailable for normal observations and is being maintained in a safe state by a significantly reduced staff."

This spring, astronomers announced the possible discovery of 1,235 new planets with dozens that they believe could be "Earth-sized" and in the "habitable zone," temperature-wise. "There is a huge irony," said SETI Director Jill Tarter, "that a time when we discover so many planets to look at, we don't have the operating funds to listen," notes the Daily News.

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Senior astronomer Seth Shostak compared this stoppage to "the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria being put into dry dock," continuing, "We have the radio antennae up, but we can't run them without operating funds...Honestly, if everybody contributed just 3 extra cents on their 1040 tax forms, we could find out if we have cosmic company."

Funding has come and gone from various sources, notes the Daily News with NASA bankrolling early projects, Congress being convinced by 1994 Nevada Sen. Richard Bryan that it wasn't worth the cost for a "Great Martian Chase" and successful private funding from donors like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Some responsibility falls on UC Berkeley's Radio Astronomy Laboratory, notes the Daily News, however its funding by the National Science Foundation only met one-tenth its previous support and budget was also cut by the state of California. SETI director Tartar estimates $5 million is needed over the next two years to support the facility and hopes the U.S. Air Force will share the expense since the Allen Telescope Array can also be used "to track satellite-threatening debris in space."

Other SETI projects, like setiQuest Explorer that allows scientist volunteers "to look for patterns from existing data" and Galaxy Zoo, a discovery project that runs in real time, remain operational.