Astronomy institute to reactivate radio telescope project

Nikki Dance/Senior Staff

Following successful fundraising efforts, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, an institute that previously partnered with UC Berkeley, will be able to begin to reactivate its array of 42 radio telescope dishes after the project was shut down in April due to a lack of funding.

The institute was able to successfully raise $200,000 over the course of two months,  allowing for the reactivation of the Allen Telescope Array, according to Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute. According to Shostak, while the money that has already been raised is a step in the right direction, additional support will be needed to sustain the array’s operations in the long term.

“While these are not good economic times, these private donations were to show (donors’) enthusiasm,” Shostak said. “But this is not going to put the antennas back on the air. The institute is looking for other funding.”

The telescopes, found around 25 miles from Lake Shasta, cost about $1.5 million a year to operate, he said. According to Shostak, the institute is also looking toward the U.S. Air Force — which has been using the array to map the position of satellites — for additional funds to continue its search for traces of life in the universe.

The campus Radio Astronomy Laboratory and the institute partnered to design and build the array 11 years ago. Since then, the laboratory has used the radio telescope dishes to map the sky, and the institute has used them to search for signs of extraterrestrial life.

Prior to shutting down the array, the institute had been losing funding from both federal and private sources, according to Shostak. In April, the Radio Astronomy Lab stopped using the array because of a lack of funding, and without financial support from the campus lab on top of already declining support, the institute was forced to deactivate the array, Shostak said.

According to Geoffrey Bower, director of the campus Radio Astronomy Laboratory and a campus assistant professor of astronomy, in addition to the fact that both groups lacked funds to continue to use the array, another reason the laboratory broke its financial ties with the SETI Institute dealt with the laboratory’s need for a larger telescope for its research.

“The telescope has been very successful up to now in order to do some things, but for our interests, the telescope would need to grow from its 42 individual antennas to hundreds,” Bower said.

Dan Werthimer, director of the SETI program at UC Berkeley, which is not affiliated with the SETI Institute, said that while the campus’s program has used the institute’s equipment in the past, the program will now “assume a more supportive role.”

“(UC Berkeley) will not be using the (array) for SETI research,” Werthimer said. “We will be more in the supportive role for technical and engineering support and are now moving on to newer technologies and telescopes.”

Alex Filippenko, a campus professor of astronomy, said in an email that while the success of the private fundraiser was a good start, finding support for the institute will need to be a continued effort.

“Additional funds are needed to continue long-term operations,” Filippenko said in an email. “Still, this is a very encouraging start, and it shows that people are genuinely interested in finding out whether intelligent life is common or very rare in the Universe.”