You can help bring SETI's ear back online

By Phil Plait | June 24, 2011 2:00 pm

Back in April, I reported that SETI’s Allen Telescope Array — a 42-dish setup in northern California that scans the skies, listening for signals from potential alien intelligences — had to be shut down due to lack of funds.

This bad news resulted in something of a public outcry, and a grassroots organization sprung up to try to help rectify the situation. They started the website SETIstars, where people can donate to restart the ATA. They have the relatively modest goal of reaching $200,000 in donations, which is enough to get the array restarted; SETI can then leverage on this to try to get more funding flowing (the array takes about $2.5M a year to run). You can learn more about this on their info page.

As I write this they’ve raised over $20,000, 13% of the goal, with just over a month to go. If you support them, please go take a look and do what you can.


Related posts:

- E. T. call waiting
- The cost of SETI: infographic
- Interview with Jill Tarter

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Science

Comments (34)

  1. Marc

    Shouldn’t 20 000 be 10% of 200 000?
    Did you round off some place?

  2. Fry-kun

    Why don’t they just leverage all the computing power they have at their disposal? If they sell a small fraction of CPU time, they can fund the project…

  3. VinceRN

    I wonder if part of the problem is PR. The Allen Telescope Array collects useful data that can be used for other things besides looking for ET, there is probably a lot to be learned from the data. However, SETI being the main, or at least the most public, use of the array probably turns a lot of people off. There is probably funding available out there that they aren;t getting because the main use is SETI.

    If SETI were a footnote instead of a headline, and the main effort was to get this amazing radio telescope array funded for all the other stuff it can do, would they have a better chance of getting funding?

    SETI could still use the data, nothing real would change.

    I still support SETI either way, I just wonder if the name SETI is part of the problem?

  4. Michael Berry

    What I find surprising is that some major corporation hasn’t picked up the tab and used SETI as some kind of marketing ploy. There is the possibility that the investing company might tarnish the project’s reputation, so long as the array is still on-line and listening I would think the ends justify the means.

    Whatever happens, I really hope they find the funding they need to not only continue listening indefinitely but also expand the project to encompass a broader spectrum of transmissions.

  5. CB

    Shouldn’t 20 000 be 10% of 200 000?
    Did you round off some place?

    Over 20,000 is what he said, so yes. I’m guessing approximately 26,000.

  6. MacRat

    Donations would have a greater benefit for folding@home.

  7. realta fuar

    I would have to see at least a simple budget breakdown for the ATA as well as for other major radio observatories such as Arecibo and the Byrd Green Bank Telescope to come to any conclusion about donating. For that matter, what are the yearly operating budgets of major optical observatories such as Keck, Gemini, HET, etc.? The simple fact that the SETI Institute has not been able to raise the funding to even complete the ATA (before the current recession) is also troubling. As Michael Berry said above, it would seem that this should be a relatively easy sell to corporate interests, but they’ve apparently not had much luck there either…..

  8. AWesome stuff. I live near the Allen array and drive by it infrequently. I’d hate to see it become a boneyard when it could yield such amazing science — current or archaeological. People have really stepped up.

  9. frankenstein monster

    amazing how self-absorbed we have become. We just gave up on the rest of the universe.

    Moon abandoned.
    Nuclear propulsion banned.
    Manned spaceflight in the process of abandoning.
    Unmanned space exploration seen as a boondoggle.
    Astronomy to a lesser degree too.
    SETI for all practical purposes abandoned.
    The science itself is under assault from both shortsighted people and the deluded, positively hostile to it because it contradicts their delusions.

    Seems all is falling apart down here at an ever increasing rate.

  10. jearley

    I worked with the SETI institute at a workshop for teachers last year. They are really good people, and deserve our help. I made a donation. #2 – I think that you are confusing seti@home with the Seti Institute- not related. Two different groups.

  11. Andy Nathan

    This seems like a great project. It is a shame that the search for life is resorting to begging. Looking forward to them getting their funding.

  12. mcb

    @ frankenstein monster

    It takes a sort of self-absorption to overlook the fact that the federal government is essentially bankrupt.

    Putting men on the moon was a cold war stunt. We learned nothing that robotic sample return missions could not have accomplished, and killed three astronauts and almost lost five more doing so. Sending men back to the moon would have been a egregious case of corporate welfare for the aerospace industry and a waste of resources that could be used to visit Mars.

    Depending on who’s putting them there, how, and why, nukes in space can be a very bad idea.

    Russia and China have manned space programs, US businesses will offer commercial space missions within the decade. NASA is retiring the over-rated STS; if our luck holds out it will only have killed its crew once every 65 mission.

    Robotic spaceflight has rarely been as productive as it is now. We’re exploring the sun, Mercury, Mars, Saturn, the heliopause, and deep space, and have missions on the way to dwarf planets, asteroids, and comets.

    Astronomy keeps plugging along, perhaps because it is not exclusively dependent on federal funding.

    SETI is having funding problems because the economy is in the tank. If it was being funded based on results it would be in much worse trouble. Much as I’d love for SETI to tap into the Encyclopedia Galactica, no results in 50 years suggests there is no one out there or SETI is doing it wrong.

    Science is under assault from religious, social, and political forces? It’s been that way since the Greeks…

    Seems all is falling apart down here at an ever increasing rate, just like it always does to the glass is half-empty crowd.

  13. Sam H

    I’ve always been sort of ambiguous about SETI – very plausible ideas and good science done in between, but resting on too many assumptions – how do we know that advanced civilizations use radio at all? They may just use directional lasers – or, assuming it’s possible, tiny wormholes with termini in every system, forming an interstellar network that they send their light or radio pulses through near instantaneously. And ALL of this (wormhole or no wormhole) is resting on the assumptions that:
    a) Abiogenesis is a less than rare occurrence,
    b) Evolution has produced some form of complexity in their biosphere,
    c) That form of complexity has produced a form of “sentience” (whatever that term may actually mean),
    d) That this sentience has managed to harness the necessary technology,
    e) That they’re even interested in communication/radio at all, and finally
    f) That they’ll stay around long enough to somehow leak a transmission in our direction (which over interstellar distances almost certainly MUST be directional).

    I dunno the math (and I’m probably screwed that I dropped it first semester and feel like I haven’t done it in a lifetime :( ), but as you work up the less-known variables of the Drake equation the chances of SETI being right increase astronomically and exponentially. And if we ever DO get that magic message, assuming it’s meaningful at all we’d almost certainly never understand it – the aliens are more than likely to have a completely different concept of existence than us. Even though we think we know lots about the universe, we are eternally scraping off the icing – given how much our own planet continues to stun us at every turn, I sympathize with supervisor Karellen: there are “powers and forces that lie among the stars – forces beyond anything you can ever imagine”.

    But of course, we’ve only been searching for so long – on geologic timescales, for about a half a trillionth of a second or so – much less for any significant amount in galactic time. The alien’s perception of time could be completely different than ours – they could move and live so fast we would appear frozen in time, or so slowly we’d be a mere bright blip in the more interesting drama of geologic change that would play right before their eyes (or equivalents) – either way, their signals would be lost in the noise.

    And for me, that’s almost scary. Hopefully the human experience is grounded in some form of objective reality – a base moral universal that is rational exists, good is really better than evil, and love is more powerful than hate – because if the galactic consensus (assuming that exists) were to differ, it means the whole human experience could be a lie. Hopefully that’s not the case, and there’s someone out there who’d find us an interesting species. As for us, all we know is that for small creatures such as we the vastness is made bearable only through our incredible capacity to create meaning, and is filled through love.

    I’ve always been sort of ambiguous about SETI – very plausible ideas and good science done in between, but resting on too many assumptions – how do we know that advanced civilizations use radio at all? They may just use directional lasers – or, assuming it’s possible, tiny wormholes with termini in every system, forming an interstellar network that they send their light or radio pulses through near instantaneously. And ALL of this (wormhole or no wormhole) is resting on the assumptions that:
    a) Abiogenesis is a less than rare occurrence,
    b) Evolution has produced some form of complexity in their biosphere,
    c) That form of complexity has produced a form of “sentience” (whatever that term may actually mean),
    d) That this sentience has managed to harness the necessary technology,
    e) That they’re even interested in communication/radio at all, and finally
    f) That they’ll stay around long enough to somehow leak a transmission in our direction (which over interstellar distances almost certainly MUST be directional).

    I dunno the math (and I’m probably screwed that I dropped it first semester and feel like I haven’t done it in a lifetime), but as you work up the less-known variables of the Drake equation the chances of SETI being right increase astronomically and exponentially. And if we ever DO get that magic message, assuming it’s meaningful at all we’d almost certainly never understand it – the aliens are more than likely to have a completely different concept of existence than us. Even though we think we know lots about the universe, we are eternally scraping off the icing – given how much our own planet continues to stun us at every turn, I sympathize with supervisor Karellen: there are “powers and forces that lie among the stars – forces beyond anything you can ever imagine”.

    But of course, we’ve only been searching for so long – on geologic timescales, for about a half a trillionth of a second or so – much less for any significant amount in galactic time. The alien’s perception of time could be completely different than ours – they could move and live so fast we would appear frozen in time, or so slowly we’d be a mere bright blip in the more interesting drama of geologic change that would play right before their eyes (or equivalents) – either way, their signals would be lost in the noise.

    And for me, that’s almost scary. Hopefully the human experience is grounded in some form of objective reality – a base moral universal that is rational exists, good is really better than evil, and love is more powerful than hate – because if the galactic consensus (assuming that exists) were to differ, it means the whole human experience could be a lie. Hopefully that’s not the case, and there’s someone out there who’d find us an interesting species. As for us, all we know is that for small creatures such as we the vastness is made bearable only through our incredible capacity to create meaning, and is filled through love.

    /end of yet another rant :)

  14. abadidea

    Someone very close to me is one of those conspiracy theorists who believes in all conspiracies simultaneously, especially the ones that directly contradict each other and his own religious beliefs.

    When I casually mentioned that SETI had lost its funding, he said, well of course. The government is going to unveil their involvement with aliens soon, since not even they can keep that secret shut up much longer, so they’re going to put a positive spin on it while they can. As such, SETI’s make-believe services as a pretend alien research agency are no longer needed.

    I won’t hold my breath.

  15. Annexian

    In principal I’m all for this org even with my fringe issues.

    But the major, real issue I have is one you’ve addressed (and argued for) at least as far as Hubble and other observatory images go on data retention.

    Is it not true that say in one of the movies (Species for good effect, big “Arrrgggg”) they got a clear and obvious signal, waiting decoding that the data would be HELD from the public up to a year? Now, I’m on the fringe, but is it not a magnet for us Fringers to say “The government LIES! They stole the real signal and just put gobbledyjunk!”????

    I say, they were funded by the public to begin with, and even with that issue a better use of money than $20K toilet seats and CBUs by drone into crowded markets, but now you want the public in a literally depressed economy to directly fund them?

    I’m for it, but I say 100% transparency, at least let people have access to the data realtime. Gonna whine it’s “Private” now? Like at least let people who pay > $100 a year access the stream?

  16. VinceRN

    @15 – Someone I know said exactly the same thing. At least it shows consistancy.

  17. RM

    Wonder why the great Paul Allen (who has decided to dedicate the second half of his life to suing every major tech company over the ridiculously general patents one of his previous companies was granted) can’t come up with the piddly $200K himself.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703294904575385241453119382.html

  18. Trebuchet

    @#18, RM: Just what I was wondering myself. He could cover it for a fraction of the budget for his rather pathetic football team. Which plays in a stadium he conned the taxpayers into paying for. And since his name is on it (the array), why wouldn’t he prefer to keep it going?

  19. Joseph G

    @Sam H: Regarding the assumptions and variables unconsidered with ETs, I couldn’t agree more. I consider myself a pretty open-minded guy (heck, i used to be a, er, UFO enthusiast), but the more I consider the true vastness of space (and humans never really can, we can just struggle to get a sense that it’s even vaster than we realized the last time) the more I feel like SETI is a snark hunt. Fantastic idea, extremely important question, very little chance of finding anything.
    IMHO, scientists have taken the “mediocrity principle” too far – no, we aren’t the center of the universe, no we aren’t all that different in most respects from other hominids – but I think at some point we’re going to find that life, complex life, in particular, is a much rarer thing than we’d like to believe. The fact that we exist is no evidence that we aren’t an incredibly rare fluke of chemistry and geology. I’m not a religious person wishing to keep believing in a creator, or a curmudgeon of no imagination; I think I’m just a pessimist (or, to others like me, a realist) :P

  20. Tullio

    Search for ETI is going on at SETI@home which is getting data from Arecibo and Green Bank. Einstein@home is getting data on binary pulsar systems from Parkes in Australia. It seems to me that astronomers still cooperate with projects in voluntary distributed computing, like physicists at CERN. I cannot understand why the SETI Institute is not using BOINC.

  21. Jsco

    I wonder what distance this array could discover an earth twin I.e. Leaked radio transmissions of power largely intended for terrestrial consumption.

  22. DStar

    @CB Maybe it amounts 153.846,153846 USD…

  23. DStar

    @CB Maybe the target is really 153.846,153846 USD…he he Sorry for the repetition, but I don´t know how to delete one of the two comments.

  24. Chris Winter

    Sam H wrote: “Even though we think we know lots about the universe, we are eternally scraping off the icing. Given how much our own planet continues to stun us at every turn, I sympathize with supervisor Karellen: there are “powers and forces that lie among the stars — forces beyond anything you can ever imagine”.”

    I sympathize with Han Solo: “I can imagine quite a lot.” ;-)

    That said, I also subscribe to the dictum ascribed to J. B. S. Haldane: The universe is not only queerer than we can imagine; it is queerer than we can imagine.” (And I quoted it to someone at SETICon last year.)

    But I feel we can learn to understand the universe, if we keep trying. It’s the worship of ignorance, seemingly so prevalent today, that puts our quest in doubt.

  25. Chris Winter

    Joseph G wrote (#20): “…I think at some point we’re going to find that life, complex life, in particular, is a much rarer thing than we’d like to believe.”

    I tend to agree. But “very rare” does not equate to “unique”, in my view. Consider the number of planets we’ve already found, just in our own galactic neighborhood. And we can’t even see the Earth-sized planets yet. It’s plausible that complex life is rare, and intelligent, communicative civilizations extremely rare — but in a galaxy teeming with planets, the odds might still favor multiple occurrences of communicative civilizations existing simultaneously.

    Whatever the true situation is, we can easily afford the relative pittance that lets us keep looking. Whether we as a species will remain interested in doing so is another question.

  26. frankenstein monster

    @13 mcb thank you for a very succinct demonstration of the very incapability to see the big picture, short-sightedness, excuses and rationalizations, that are the major cause this civilizations decline.

  27. Chris Winter

    RM wrote: “Wonder why the great Paul Allen (who has decided to dedicate the second half of his life to suing every major tech company over the ridiculously general patents one of his previous companies was granted) can’t come up with the piddly $200K himself.”

    This is a puzzlement — especially since, according to the WSJ story, he has pledged to give away much of his fortune.

  28. paul

    #14, Sam H. You forgot g) ET’s SETI doesn’t get proxmired. Perhaps ETs have their own individuals who view any expense without a guaranteed six month ROI as a frivolous boondoggle. Radio is cheap and easy, and we ought to be beaming our own broadcasts, instead of cowering in fear in our obscure corner of the galaxy. If we ever did decode a signal, my money is on we’d be too timid to respond.

  29. Paul

    The amount of time we devote to SETI should be roughly equivalent to the diameter of the galaxy. We have been eavesdropping for maybe 50 years. According to my calculations it will be safe to throw in the towel in about 80,000 years. And really, communication is a two way street. Perhaps, like us, ET is building enormous ears but no voice box.

  30. frankenstein monster

    @30 right. stopping anywhere before 160k years of continuous listening and broadcasting in all directions is simply giving up too early. Heck, I would give it more time so that we can receive a response from SMC and LMC too. and while we are at it, maybe its M31 and if not, M33. Let’s just give up on giving up and keep trying till we find someone.

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