Trouble at Hat Creek

by Paul Gilster on April 27, 2011

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.

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Alex Tolley April 27, 2011 at 13:03

I’m so sorry to read that the ATA is in financial difficulties. However, I have to wonder why, given that it was touted as a such a good platform, that it hasn’t secured funding. Is it just a case of funding musical chairs?

I don’t know whether the orbital tracking idea is just a solution looking for a problem, but I would have thought $5m is barely a rounding error given the Air Force’s budget. To put it in perspective, this is about the same as 1 predator drone, 1/4 the cost of an F-16 or a tiny fraction of the X-37 program. If the ATA is either useful as a new capability for the air force, or a replacement for an older system, funding it should be no problem.

Ron S April 28, 2011 at 11:46

Putting money into SETI is unlike any business proposition or, more pertinently, unlike funding other recent big science projects such as LIGO, LHC and even NEO searches. The difference is that there is no way to calculate the ROI (return on investment).

In the latter cases, even though the experiments contain many unknowns, there are concrete means to calculate what is likely to be discovered, when it will be discovered, what it’ll cost to get there, and even why it matters to the public or private institutions that provide the funding. Sure there are probabilities involved, but they are well enough constrained to provide an adequate degree of confidence.

For SETI there are no such certainties, probabilities or any means to bound the probabilities. We don’t know if what we are searching for exists, whether the search can succeed (or at least a mean time to detection), or even broadly agree that the search, successful or not, has value. For this reason I suspect that SETI will have to continue to rely on funding from enthusiasts — time or money or both. This will be true even if the funding requirements are modest.

Frank April 28, 2011 at 17:10

Why are the projected costs so high? $5,000,000 over two years works out to almost $7,000/day for a passive array. What would cost that much?

Chris T April 28, 2011 at 17:59

To follow Ron S’s comment,
Most science experiments have value even in negative results. It either sets further bounds on an effect or hypothesis or provides evidence against one hypothesis. However, this is also done in situations where most of variables are known and understood, and as Ron noted, we really don’t know any of the variables for radio SETI. It makes interpretation of negative results impossible, because there are almost an unlimited number number of possible reasons for them.

Thus the only hypothesis we can reasonably falsify is one proposing we’re being showered with artificial radio waves at the frequencies we look at. We’re clearly not.

This is not to say radio SETI isn’t scientific, the question it asks can, in principle, be answered, but it becomes harder to justify diverting any resources to it when there are so many other scientific enterprises that would be useful even in failure (and can be used for SETI at the same time).

ljk April 29, 2011 at 9:33

SETI has answered the big question that scientists wanted to know from the beginning of the era: Is there a network of alien civilizations chatting away across the galaxy via radio and other methods and can humanity join in now that it has the knowledge and ability to do so? The answer is that if there is the galactic equivalent of the Internet going on out there, it has not been obvious to us. This helps SETI to focus on where they might be.

And yes, if there is no one else or very few that is also a significant finding, for then we need to learn why a galaxy with 400 billion star systems has so few intelligent beings. However, we need much more than the relatively few telescopes being used for current SETI to make significant strides it this area if we ever want the real answers.

I wonder how many SETI projects could have been funded by the Royal Wedding that the media and general public has spent so much time focusing on? Even today’s Space Shuttle launch is being focused on for reasons other than the fact that Endeavour (on its last space mission) is carrying the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer.

You can say it is better that publicity is happening for these things in some way than none at all, but it is time people focused on what mattered, before we wake up one day from our so-called reality programs and see that the important things which made our civilization possible are gone.

I hope the other SETI projects still operating can ramp up to make up for the loss of the ATA. As one can learn on The SETI League and Columbus/Bournemouth Optical SETI Observatory Web sites, so-called amateur astronomers can participate in doing real SETI to help the effort.

See here:

http://www.setileague.org/argus/index.html

and here:

http://www.coseti.org/

Chris T April 29, 2011 at 13:33

ljk – Ruling out intelligent life in the galaxy would require a comprehensive direct observational search of every star system in the galaxy. The passive nature of radio SETI can never rule out anything (beyond we’re not being bombarded with messages at the frequencies we listen for).

So the question thereby becomes, is the likely scientific ROI of passive SETI worth putting resources towards, versus other scientific activities?

To me, putting the resources towards developing more direct observational approaches is a far better investment (finding and characterizing planets, looking for signs of life and ultimately technology). Both because the probability of success is much higher and there is much to be gained scientifically even if it fails.

ljk April 29, 2011 at 14:29

Chris T, I agree with you overall, but since most SETI is quite cheap compared to a lot of other science fields, I am loathe to ever want to stop it, especially over a few dollars in comparison to the gains should we ever get lucky. As always we may find other natural cosmic phenomena in the process of looking for alien minds.

Plus, as I linked to above, even non-professionals can join in the search in the radio and optical realms. As has been proven for centuries, amateur astronomers are big contributors to the scientific understanding of the Universe. Seeing how even private SETI endeavors cannot seem to escape the budget axe any more than the big government ones did, the astronomical community’s help is needed more than ever.

Chris T April 29, 2011 at 18:57

The problem is, there are a lot of other scientific projects (even just in astronomy) that an annual 2.5 million could pay for. Given the probabilities of success and questionable return in its absence, can we really justify those expenditures at the cost of other possible projects? Many of which would give us a higher chance of detecting an alien civilization and provide substantial other scientific gains?

True, the total amount of funding is small, but innumerable other potential projects could make a similar claim. We cannot possibly fund them all. Does or is SETI likely to provide enough value to justify funding it over other uses for the resources?

ljk April 29, 2011 at 23:17

I consider finding life, intelligent or otherwise, beyond Earth to be among the most important quests in science and human history. We have devoted so little to this compared to its importance and most other endeavors.

Americans spend $3 billion annually on chewing gum and many millions to watch fictional accounts of imaginary aliens.

I would go so far as to say that the potential benefits of finding alien life and learning from extraterrestrial minds outweighs a fair number of other projects, including certain more abstract astronomical ones. And serious amateur astronomers who already spend thousands of dollars of their own money for telescopes can participate in SETI with no drain on anyone’s taxes.

We have not tried hard enough with SETI.

David May 1, 2011 at 3:51

Frank,

At the frequencies that the Allen telescope operates at, internal noise from the electronics
is much stronger than any radio signal. Therefore one has to refrigerate the electronics to reduce that noise using liquid Nitrogen or liquid Helium. Even if one is not using the radio telescope, the refrigeration systems must still be operating else the electronic systems get damaged when they warm up. Also the antennas must be occasionally moved about if one does not want the gears in the antenna mounts to either freeze up or be distorted. General maintenance is still needed and there may be other things that may need doing at least on an occasional basis. At any rate, even a radio telescope not being used still requires electricity and maintenance so I am not surprised at the costs that you quote.

Rob Henry May 1, 2011 at 19:31

Ljk, your comment over royal wedding says it all. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a royalist who delights in New Zealand’s cunning ploy of getting Britain to pay the entire bill for our common royal family, but the lesson is never underestimate the power bringing fantasy into the reality of dream fulfilment.

Science is really the portal that, if fully funded, would allow us to… dip into the future, far as human eye can see, saw a vision of the world and all the wonder that can be… If we don’t convey that were not maximally contributing to society.

ljk May 31, 2011 at 4:13

Astronomical Deficit Forces Downsizing of U.S. Telescope Projects

The federal fiscal crisis is pushing NASA and National Science Foundation officials to make painful choices between present and proposed astronomy programs

By John Matson | May 26, 2011 |

BRIGHT SPOT: The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a project that originated in decades past, is now coming to fruition. But newer projects are finding funding scarce.Image: ALMA (ESO / NAOJ / NRAO)

BOSTON—Astronomy is facing a lean decade. That was the message handed down by senior representatives of the federal agencies that fund much of the field’s research in the U.S. during “town halls” with scientists here at the semiannual meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

Science agencies are facing flat or declining budgets, and in that environment new astronomy initiatives will often be possible only at the expense of existing ones. “We can turn off the old to enable the new,” NASA Astrophysics Division director Jon Morse said in a May 23 town hall discussion. “That’s where we are from a budgetary standpoint.” NASA funds space-based projects in the U.S., whereas the National Science Foundation funds terrestrial telescope projects.

Full article here:

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=nsf-nasa-budgets&WT.mc_id=SA_CAT_physics_20110527

ljk August 9, 2011 at 2:25

With New Funding, Quest for Alien Life Is Back On

Published August 08, 2011

FoxNews.com

If ET phones, we’re listening again — thanks to you.

Astronomers at the cash-strapped SETI Institute are poised to resume the quest for extraterrestrial life, after raising more than $200,000 to restart a key array of telescopes.

The institute was forced to put the hunt on hold in April, after cash-strapped governments decided they could no longer afford to pay the interstellar phone bill. To raise the required money, SETI turned to crowdsourcing: It unveiled the SETIStars.org website in June and independently raised the $204,129 needed to restart the Allen Telescope Array.

“Thank you to everyone who helped us reach our goal of getting the ATA back online!” reads a note posted to the SETI website. “Stay tuned for updates. We are discovering more Earth-like planets every day, so now is more critical than ever to look for extraterrestrial life.”

Full article here:

http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2011/08/08/with-new-funding-quest-for-alien-life-is-back-on/

Steven F April 18, 2013 at 13:14

Never a “closure”. SETI used the term “Hibernation”. Please check official source on information:
http://www.seti.org/seti-institute/project/details/fact-sheet

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