SETI’s Telescope Array Kept Alive By Donations From Many, Including Actor Jodie Foster

The desire for extra-terrestrial contact is too much to resist. The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, California, suffered a big blow a few months ago, when its main array of radio-telescope the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) was put out of operation due to budget cuts both from the Centre and the State. However, a week ago it was revived and it’s doing what it does best look out for radio signals from outer space.

SETI’s ATA: Fresh hopes

SETI’s ATA was handed a new lease of life by numerous donors, who shelled out large amounts and helped SETI reach its campaign goal of $200,000. It ended up with a collection of $223,000 thanks to 2557 donors. One of the star donors was Jodie Foster, actor in the female lead in the film Contact’. Her donation amount however, is not known.

The Movie

In the movie, Foster played a very passionate and extremely gifted scientist, who goes from pillar-to-post searching for funds when the initial funds for her Radio Telescope expedition suddenly dry up. When she receives periodic signals from an unmistakably alien intelligence source, she suddenly gets the attention of the science community. Contact! Who can possibly forget the frenetic passion enthused by Foster when she hears the first Contact – a periodic metallic ring buzzing on her laptop? Watch it here.

Deciphering the coded message, the science community builds a device, which is tested by Foster. It turns out to be a device, which creates a wormhole. When she relates this experience, no one believes her and even the scientist in her doubts it! Based on the book by the same name written by Carl Sagan, Contact is scientifically accurate both in fact and spirit. (I would personally recommend it!)

Reality

Foster, like her character in the movie, says that the ATA is too good to go. The telescopes:

could turn science fiction into science fact, but only if it is actively searching the skies. I support the effort to bring the array out of hibernation.

The ATA was founded based on a grand fund donated by Paul Allen. SETI realises the need to find new and long-term sources of funding.

One momentous discovery can turn it around for SETI. Everyone hopes that the movie-like beep-beep-beep’ can pull it out of the forced slumber.

Hubble Discovers a Fourth New Moon of Pluto

Hubble has done it again. It has captured a hitherto unknown fourth moon of Pluto, the dwarf planet. The three known moons of Pluto are Charon, Nix and Hydra. The fourth one, discovered just recently on 3rd July, 2011, and officially announced today by NASA and SETI, is temporarily known as P4.

Pluto was stripped of its planet tag on 24th August, 2006 and was relegated to the status of dwarf planet’ along with Eris and Ceres. Eris is, in fact, more massive than Pluto.

An animation showing Pluto. Done using images from Hubble (Photo: NASA)

Charon is the most well-known moon of Pluto and was the only moon discovered till 2005. It is quite large, with a size comparable with Pluto. In 2005, two newer moons were discovered and named Nix and Hydra. It is not known whether this recently discovered moon, P4, was there at the time of the discovery of the previous moons or was captured more recently.

The photo captured by Hubble. (Courtesy: SETI/NASA)

It was due to the wonder called the Hubble Space Telescope that a cold object, tiny in size and moving fast around a very distant body could be photographed. Mark Showalter of SETI Institute in Mountain View, California has this to say:

I find it remarkable that Hubble’s cameras enabled us to see such a tiny object so clearly from a distance of more than 3 billion miles (5 billion km).

The diameter of the new moon is just 8-21 miles, while Charon, by comparison, is a giant at 648 miles. Nix and Hydra are both about 50 miles in diameter.

NASA aims to discover more about the body least known to man with the upcoming New Horizons mission. New Horizons will hope to fly past Pluto in 2015, using inputs from Hubble’s photos to chart out its path.