Astronomers worldwide are mourning the loss of the Searth for Extraterrestrial Intelligence program after funding was finally cut and resulted in the closure of the Allen Telescope Array that once gave hope to mankind that we would one day intercept an alien signal from space. But while some are suggesting the shutdown is a sad sign of our times, others are suggesting we’re pulling the plug for other reasons. While the shutdown is termed temporary by the institute, others are afraid this could mean the end of one of the greatest undertakings the human race has ever embarked upon.
With 1,235 planets on the radar now, and many interesting possible signals making headlines over the past few years, SETI could not have gone under at a more important time in the history of the Earth. But when public interest in the program shifts to more imminent and terrestrial concerns and private donations lacking, the institute seems to have no alternative. At least not for the moment.
And the loss was not loss on supporters of the program who have said for years they were waiting for circumstances very similar to the ones finally reached to finally start scanning the skies in a more directed manner while looking for life among them. The new planets, including several which could theoretically hold life in stages advanced enough to transmit signals of intelligent origin will remain in obscurity far beyond the reach of our receivers until the program is brought back online.
Unfortunately, the program had a run in with an ominous force in today’s world – tighter budgets and increasing costs to remain in operation. Unfortunately, one of the primary concerns of the program in its later years was the loss of government funding in 1994 long before the economy turned as dire as it is today.
But there is hope, though from a source many would be apprehensive to broker a deal with in the SETI community. With the military and military developers taking over more programs to meet an increasing need for intelligence, SETI could be used to pick up on information of several extraterrestrial objects of terrestrial origin such as the swirling cloud of debris that threatens satellites quite literally around the globe. But unless it is a problem the Air Force thinks is worth spending on to the tune of $5 million, it might still not mean SETI opens its doors – and its ears once again. Up until this point their largest contributors were Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft (donating over $25 million) and other private donors in the hundreds.
In a world where trillions of dollars are being sent out to fund projects across the board, it seems difficult to imagine suddenly finding ourselves in a world with no SETI over a matter of only $5 million. Though it may be a lot to an individual, the amount in question is virtually nothing when it comes to funding large projects. $247,000 was spent on developing a virus free strain of grapes that would survive in the Washington area, $522,000 was set aside for cranberry research in New Jersey, and $500,000 was set aside to control brown tree snake populations in Guam in 2010.