It was supposed to be the most powerful radio telescope on the planet. Instead, the Allen Telescope Array — built on the Hat Creek Radio Observatory in Northern California — has suffered from a lack of funding and can no longer remain competitive for UC Berkeley researchers to use.
SRI International — a nonprofit organization founded by a group of West Coast industrialists and Stanford University in 1970 — has taken over management of the observatory from UC Berkeley’s Radio Astronomy Laboratory effective this month and will allow the SETI Institute to continue its use of the facility to search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
“The array was begun in a time of irrational exuberance, and it ended in a great recession,” said UC Berkeley astronomy professor and director of the telescope array Geoff Bower.
The telescope array was founded in 2007 by UC Berkeley and SETI researchers with funding from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. The goal was — and still is, according to director of the Center for SETI Research Jill Tarter — to build 350 radio dishes to complete the project. However, limited funding has allowed for installation of only 42 of those dishes over the past five years, and the facility had to close between April and December 2011 when funding dried up.
“The onus of operating the facility, hiring maintenance was Berkeley’s responsibility,” Tarter said. “Berkeley ran out of money to do that, and we had to put it in hibernation while we tried to find another partner.”
The array, which originated as the most comprehensive wide-angle, snapshot radio camera ever constructed, allowed UC Berkeley scientists to create radio images of massive areas of sky.
“The array looks at a large area of the sky at a time and is built in a way that there are essentially four types of data that you get from the telescope,” Tarter said. “So you can do that while someone is looking at other objects in the same part of the sky – this is the first telescope that was ever built deliberately to do this.”
UC Berkeley scientists lament the loss of the facility and its possibilities but have accepted that without the badly needed funding to build it out to its originally planned size, its capabilities are too limited.
“We would have conducted surveys that would have discovered very interesting phenomenon, things that explode, gurgle and burp,” Bower said.