SETI Institute's search for extraterrestrial life hits a budgetary black hole

The Allen Telescope Array, run by the SETI Institute near Mt. Shasta, is like an enormous ear that listens for any sign of intelligent life in the universe. But a funding cutoff leaves the project in a nebulous state.

Software engineer Colby Gutierrez-Kraybill sat alone in an observatory in this volcanic valley near Mt. Shasta, staring out a picture window at storm clouds gathering over the world's largest instrument to search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

He had reason to look forlorn, surrounded by empty bookshelves, unmarked chalkboards and rows of tables where scientists from around the world once argued over the best direction to aim 42 radio telescopes designed to act as an enormous ear capable of scanning more than a million stars over 10 billion radio frequencies.

In its history, Hat Creek Radio Observatory researchers never heard any sign of intelligent life in the universe. But that didn't stop them from trying.

The budget crisis did.
Last month, the project ran out of operational funds — victim to shrinking grants and the state's financial straits — and the telescopes were switched off and pointed at the ground, perhaps indefinitely. Gutierrez-Kraybill, a computer expert, now is part of a two-man skeleton crew tasked with protecting the 90-acre observatory from the elements and vandals.

"It's a pretty sad situation," said Colby, who has lived at the facility, about 30 miles from the nearest community, since 2001. "If project officials cannot raise enough money by June 30 to keep the two of us on the payroll to take care of the equipment, structures and telescopes, they may have to dismantle everything and level this place.

"With enough money, we could get the observatory up and running again in one day," he added, visibly brightened by the dream of a windfall.

The nonprofit SETI Institute, the Bay Area organization that runs the Allen Telescope Array, is scrambling to keep the project alive. Proposals under consideration include helping the U.S. Air Force track space debris in return for operating funds, and a "citizen scientist" program that would enable people to link up with radio telescope receivers at a cost of about $5 per minute.

Under that program, participants lucky enough to be online if and when a signal from some alien race came through would share credit for the greatest discovery in the history of mankind.

"We are at an extraordinary juncture," Tom Pierson, the institute's chief executive officer, said in an interview. "We are focused on getting interim support, perhaps from a large donor. But there is a chance this could be the end of the Allen Telescope Array."

Los Angeles Times, Louis Sahagun, May 7, 2011