If you haven’t already heard the news, the SETI Institute‘s Allen Telescope Array is back on track! Private donors raised $200,000 in 45 days, and the array is expected to resume looking for extraterrestrials (and doing other cool science) by mid-September.
To be honest, I was pessimistic about the ATA having a chance to get back on its feet once it was announced that they could no longer cover operational costs. Don’t get me wrong; I have long been a fan of the project and was hoping that it could be a shining example of privately-funded science.
Well, my pessimism was misguided, as over 2500 people to date, including luminaries like Jodie Foster, chipped in to help the array get back on its feet… or altaz mount, to be specific.
When making her donation to the SETIStars campaign, Foster said:
Foster is, of course, referring to her character in the 1997 movie “Contact” — a role that has become synonymous with alien signal-hunting efforts.
It would be an awful shame to lose the capability to look for extraterrestrial signals just as we are pinning down the location of hundreds of planets thanks to dedicated survey instruments on the ground and in space. The ATA has also been an excellent testing ground for new technology, such as feeds that can collect radio waves over a broad spectrum or back-end computer systems using reconfigurable hardware.
Image: It looks like a torture device, but it receives radio waves from 1-10 GHz.
If you don’t think that SETI counts as science, well, you should have taken my “Life Beyond Earth” class! But seriously, the radio and optical searches for extraterrestrial beacons may have a very small and fuzzy chance of success in the near future, but they do follow scientific methods and principles and are the most scientific study of potential intelligent extraterrestrial beings that we have.
However, even from a purely astrophysical standpoint, the ATA allows astronomers to do some cool science, such as map hydrogen gas in galaxies, detect transient phenomena, and measure the magnetic fields in our galaxy. (See their list of papers up to 2009, and some interesting work I saw at conferences in 2010 and 2011.)
So, if you really think that the Allen Telescope Array has great potential, you can still become a SETIStar and donate any amount, large or small, to foster scientific creativity and thinking at the SETI Institute and keep this really great instrument on track.
Image credits: SETI Institute