What is ‘space situational awareness,’ and what does it have to do with SETI? The answer begins with the collision of a Russian Cosmos 2251 satellite with one of the 66 communications satellites that comprise the Iridium satellite constellation, a worldwide voice and data system. The collision, which occurred on February 10, 2009 produced hundreds of pieces of debris. The Air Force Space Command needs ways of tracking such debris, which poses a threat in the increasingly crowded skies above our planet.
Enter the Allen Telescope Array, known primarily as a state-of-the-art center for the SETI effort to identify other intelligent species in the galaxy. The ATA caught the Air Force’s eye as a way of tracking and cataloging man-made objects in orbit. Located in a volcanic valley near the Lassen National Forest in California, the array has proven its worth at this task in early tests, a fact that could inspire a new funding source for the observatory. And as we learned to our dismay through a recent post by astronomer Franck Marchis (UC-Berkeley), such funding may now turn out to be crucial.
Marchis notes that the Allen Telescope Array is in deep financial trouble. The ATA has been managed by the SETI Institute and the University of California at Berkeley, the latter’s observations having been funded both by the state of California and the National Science Foundation. Funding from these sources is now drying up.
So far the ATA has put $50 million from donors like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to work building the existing 42 dishes, with plans calling for the construction of 350 radio antennae in total. What the ATA now lacks is the income for its daily operational costs, with the National Science Foundation’s support now whittled down to one-tenth of its previous level, and cuts from the state of California as well. The situation doesn’t seem insurmountable — Jill Tarter believes $5 million is needed over the next two years to keep SETI alive — but budgets at the Air Force are as tight as anywhere.
The result: The Allen Telescope Array is, at least for now, in hibernation, with several members of the Hat Creek observatory staff having already been laid off. The installation is non-functional, although safe, according to a late April letter sent to donors by SETI Institute CEO Tom Pierson. While we wait to see whether Air Force funding can help the ATA acquire a new role (and, let’s assume, remain available for future SETI efforts), the timing of the closure has many researchers shaking their heads. After all, Kepler is out there targeting Earth-like worlds, setting up a target list for the ATA to search for signals. The SETI Institute has been asking for donations for a campaign to study the 2000 best Kepler candidates.
So can we raise the $5 million needed to put the formidable resources of the ATA onto the top Kepler candidates? The SETI Institute’s donation page is here. The beauty of the ATA installation, even in its current truncated form, is that competition for observing time on other telescopes can be formidable, whereas even with some ATA time farmed out for Air Force purposes, the array would still be able to hunt SETI targets through a remarkable 10 billion channels. A single dollar contribution buys a 4 million channel look at a single Kepler candidate, and as Seth Shostak has noted, a mere three cents added to US tax forms would keep the facility operational.
I want to point out that this is not a SETI issue alone. The ATA has a wide range of astronomical goals embedded within the SETI mantle, including classifying 250,000 extragalactic radio sources as active galactic nuclei or starburst galaxies, and looking for transient signals caused by accretion onto black holes and other perhaps unknown phenomena. Add the one million stars slated for SETI examination and the 4×1010 billion stars of the inner Galactic Plane to be surveyed for powerful, non-natural transmitters and you have a priceless observational package.
We’re fortunate that the scientific opportunities offered by the ATA are so broad — a fact that should attract funding — and that the array already covers the main space communications bands, which is why it has been proposed for downlink purposes for contestants in the Google Lunar X Prize contest. All of this, plus the ATA’s obvious utility for the Air Force Space Command, leaves me hoping there is a way to work through the financial shortfall and keep the ATA functional. But private donors need to step up – now – to boost our chances of getting the Kepler candidates examined for SETI signals with the equipment most suited for the job.
For more about the ATA closure and what you can do, read SETI Institute Tom Pierson’s April 22 letter, from which this quote:
We are continuing discussions with the USAF and remain hopeful that this effort will help provide future operating funds. At the same time, we must strive to find other sources of funding to supplement operations costs and, very importantly, to support SETI science observations. We are preparing a coordinated campaign to ask for help, and you will be hearing more from us about this. The bottom line is that it takes approximately $1.5M/year to operate the ATA, and at least an additional $1M/year to cover the cost of our SETI science efforts. Thus, right now, we are trying to raise $5M to cover a two-year search of the Kepler Worlds by Jill Tarter and her team. Assuming funding can be acquired, we plan to spend the next two years listening to the 1,235 exoplanet candidates that the Kepler mission announced in February. This fabulous opportunity represents a fundamental shift to be able to point our instruments at known planetary systems, rather than at stars that might or might not host planets.