MOUNTAIN VIEW (KCBS) - Forget about phoning home. If E.T. ever wants to phone planet Earth, the call may not connect.
The SETI Institute in Mountain View has suffered a major setback in the day-to-day operation of its deep space listening devices - the $5 million budget gap means those devices will be put in hibernation mode, dealing a massive blow to the search for life on other planets.
KCBS' Matt Bigler Reports:
That SETI (Search For Extra-Terrestrial Life) Institute is now looking for other ways of funding the operation of its array of radio telescopes in Shasta County,
The telescopes, known as the Allen Telescope Array, are a joint project between the institute and the University of California at Berkeley's Radio Astronomy Laboratory. The SETI Institute provided the initial funding to build the array, while UC is responsible for the day-to-day operation. Federal and state funding cutbacks have forced UC to halt to the daily operation of the array, according to the institute.
"It's challenging," conceded SETI Institute CEO Tom Pierson. "We're motivated to fix it just as we were in the 1990s when the NASA SETI program went away and I believe we can do so."
Indeed, NASA had provided the financial backing for some early SETI projects, but that funding dried up under Congressional scrutiny, with some lawmakers criticizing the "chase" for Martians and flying saucers.
A subsequent private donor drive proved successful, which allowed the institute to build the 42 radio dishes that are now being shelved.
Last week, Pierson sent a letter to donors advising them that those dishes were simply being put into "hibernation" - describing them as being kept safe, though in a nonfunctioning mode.
Meanwhile, Pierson was pinning his hopes on the U.S. Air Force, hoping that agency's budget would allow for support of the SETI program - reasoning that the institute's dishes could help the Air Force track space debris.
Without question, though, the dishes would remain off until funding is secured, and that could translate into a missed call from E.T.
"Sure, yeah, we might miss something but we would hope whatever's out there is going to be you know, an ongoing broadcast that could later be detected," he reasoned.
Pierson was confident there was a valid reason to get the dishes fired up again.
"NASA's incredible Kepler mission is actually giving us our first really valid targets where we're pointing at planetary systems that we know are out there around other stars," he explained, "and that's why we are extremely motivated to get the array back online and get back to work."
(© 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)
for more features.