The famous Allen Telescope Array (ATA) has been suspended from active operation by the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) due to fund crunch. For SETI, which is almost five decades old, this is the worst it has ever seen. The news of the suspension was broken by Tom Pierson, CEO of SETI institute, on 22nd April in an open letter to SETI donors.
SETI was designed to listen to and interpret signals coming from space in the hope that extra-terrestrial life-forms might beam communication symbols at us or at some other civilization, which we might intercept. With its 42 radio telescopes, the ATA (or ATA-42, as it was often called) formed a formidable backbone for this mission. It was founded in 2007 with generous donations from Paul Allen, Microsoft’s co-founder, after whom the array has been named. The array is now kept just alive with a bare minimum of crew looking after it, so that it doesn’t deteriorate.
ATA was being funded by the University of California, Berkeley, and as per expansion plans, nearly 300 new dishes were to be put up in the near future (taking the total to nearly 350). However, recently the funds have dried up and SETI is running around looking for sponsors simply to keep its esteemed array alive.
SETI has received criticism from many quarters in the half-century of its operation. Most of what it listens to is static. This is to be expected, but many say that the search itself is futile, or at best, time and money sapping. It also has had its share of well-wishers, most notably the late Carl Sagan.
SETI argues that detection of even a single positive signal will be gold. Till now, no confirmatory detection has been made.
However, ATA was used for more than listening for alien signals. It was used for mapping and classifying extragalactic radio sources, such as Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN’s). It was also used to monitor 40 billion billion stars in the inner Galactic plane with the hope of detecting some strong artificial radio transmission. ATA is known for its sensitivity and a large field of view (nearly 2.5 degree at 21 cm wavelength the H-I line).
A positive detection now will put the ATA back on course. Here’s wishing SETI happy alien hunting.