SETI pulls the plug on search for space aliens

The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence has pulled the plug on its Allen Telescope Array in the face of US government funding cuts, despite the discovery of thousands of new planets many of which could feasibly support life.

In a letter to existing donors, SETI head alien hunter Tom Pierson said that the ATA facility had been put into 'hibernation' because of a massive shortfall in funding.

"As a significant supporter of the Allen Telescope Array (ATA), you are already familiar with its unique capabilities," reads the April 22nd missive. "Not only does the Array enable our SETI search, but it also has been used to make considerable strides in radio astronomy and, most recently, in the development of the ability to detect space debris.

"With leadership funding by Paul Allen and the significant contributions by you and many others, the array has achieved much. Perhaps most important, the ATA is the world’s best instrument to search for possible signals from the thousands of planets being identified by NASA’s Kepler Mission."

The letter, which was sent to individuals and institutions that have already made contributions to the organisation's upkeep, was intended to notify sponsors of the impending shut-down before it leaked to the media.

"Effective this week," the letter continues, "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."

Some government funding for the work has been cut to a tenth of its former level, and efforts to implement a partnership with the US Air Force have been hampered by large scale federal budget problems.

Despite the closure of the Hat Creek Array, SETI is still working on a number of community-based projects including collecting data from individual antennas.

SETI boffins say the timing is rather unfortunate as the Kepler space telescope has recently discovered 1,235 new planets, dozens of which are the right size and temperature to support life as we know it.

"There is a huge irony," SETI Director Jill Tarter told the Mercury News, "that a time when we discover so many planets to look at, we don't have the operating funds to listen."

Senior astronomer Seth Shostak said, "We have the radio antennae up, but we can't run them without operating funds. If everybody contributed just three extra cents on their [tax returns] we could find out if we have cosmic company."

The Alien Telescope Array listens to signals from outer space and tries to filter anything out of the ordinary, like repetitive digital signals, from the background noise.

Without the monitoring system, if anyone does call we'll almost certainly miss the message.