SETI to turn telescopes back on in coming days

In April, lack of funding forced the institute to turn off the telescopes, which search for evidence of extraterrestrial life

The Allen Telescope Array, funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and used by the SETI Institute to search for extraterrestrial life, should be back up and running in a few days.

The array was shut down in April due to lack of funding. But in June the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute said that if it could raise $US200,000 from the public by August it would be able to turn the array back on. It reached that goal some time in the past few days, said Karen Randall, director of special projects at the institute.

The SETI Institute spends $1.5 million annually to keep the array in rural Northern California up and running, and it has not announced additional funding, but it doesn't expect to have to shut down the telescopes again any time soon. Randall was vague on details but said the group has been working on partnerships with commercial and scientific organizations for additional funding. "We're not going to shut down" again, she said.

The institute has tried to work out a deal with the U.S. Air Force, which was interested in investigating whether the array could help with tracking space junk. In April, SETI Institute's CEO said talks were ongoing but that federal budget issues had slowed down progress.

Randall wasn't exactly sure when the telescopes would be back online. "They were never designed to go into hibernation, so we have to evaluate what it takes to bring it out of hibernation," she said. Scientists have already been deployed to begin working on that process. The telescopes are likely to be working again this week or possibly early next week, she said.

More than 2,200 people contributed to the $200,000 in public donations, including actress Jodie Foster, who in the movie "Contact" played a SETI scientist who picked up communications from aliens by listening to radio waves collected by an array much like the Allen Telescope Array.

The Allen Telescope Array is a joint project of the SETI Institute and the Radio Astronomy Lab of the University of California at Berkeley. The university was to fund the operations of the observatory that houses the array, but state and federal budget reductions forced the university to cut all operations except the bare minimum required to safely maintain equipment at the site.

Microsoft co-founder Allen contributed approximately $25 million to construct the existing first phase of the array, which consists of 42 radio dishes. The telescopes listen for radio waves in space. In addition to potentially indicating the existence of life, such waves help scientists study black holes and search for galaxies.

Nancy Gohring covers mobile phones and cloud computing for The IDG News Service. Follow Nancy on Twitter at @idgnancy. Nancy's e-mail address is Nancy_Gohring@idg.com

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