28 July, 2011

The end of SETI - as we know it

That's right. According to the latest edition of Nature, Californian budget restraints mean that the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is to come to an end.

If further funding is not secured, this means that all 42 radio dishes of the Allen Telescope Array in Hat Creek Radio Observatory will be shut down and possibly dismantled.

The melancholy vista at Hat Creek makes it easy to entertain equally melancholy thoughts about the SETI enterprise itself. It's the ultimate in high-risk, high-payoff science, pursued by only a handful of passionate researchers. In 50 years of searching, they have turned up nothing — and they can't quite shake an association in the public mind with flying-saucer sightings and Hollywood science fiction, all of which is so easy for cost-cutting politicians to ridicule that any substantial federal funding for SETI is impossible. Private support for the search is getting tighter because of the global recession. And many of the pioneers who have championed the search are now well into their 60s, 70s or 80s.

It's a sad thought that SETI might soon be gone, because althought they have been scanning the skies - without success - for 50 years, they have literally just begun. As Jill Tarter, head of the search programme at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, puts it:

...giving up now would be like dipping a cup into the Pacific Ocean, finding nothing but clear water and declaring, 'the oceans have no fish'

So what next?

According to the article, although SETI itself might officially be shut down, the search for extraterrestrial life will go on regardless. A website called SETIstars.org has been set up to try and raise some basic operational money - this seems unlikely to succeed though given the current worldwide economic pressures. A more plausible approach that is being considered is to simply cut back and do smaller scale studies with the help of SETI enthusiasts around the world who might have access to the appropriate equipment - sort of a SETI equivalent of the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPs).

Either way, I think it's inevitable, and important, that the search will go on - albeit in a different way.

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