Jodie Foster Helps Revive SETI Allen Telescope Array

by

The nonprofit Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, which was forced earlier this year to shutter its Allen Telescope Array (ATA) due to budget issues, has raised enough money to resume the search for life beyond planet Earth.

The institute reached its goal of raising $200,000 to operate the telescope through the end of this year. The funds came from over 2,000 private donors, including actress Jodie Foster, who played fictional SETI scientist Ellie Arroway in the 1997 movie “Contact.”

“Just like Ellie Arroway, the ATA is ‘good to go’ and we need to return it to the task of searching newly discovered planetary worlds for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence,” Foster wrote in a note accompanying her donation. “The Allen Telescope Array could turn science fiction into science fact, but only if it is actively searching the skies.”

The Allen Telescope Array is SETI’s collection of 42 radio dishes, each 6 meters wide, at Hat Creek Radio Observatory in California. The dishes work together to scan the heavens for signs of an intelligent civilization out there in the cosmos creating nonrandom signals.

The instrument, named after Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who funded its construction, is the first to be dedicated almost entirely to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

“Its main advantage is that we can use it 24/7,” SETI senior astronomer Seth Shostak said. “In principle it’s always available to us. When you’re using someone else’s antenna you get a certain amount of time on the instrument. That makes for very inefficient observing. I liken it to borrowing a microscope to do cancer research.”

The instrument became operational in 2007, but SETI was forced to shut it down in April 2011 for lack of funds. Now, by raising donations through its online SETIStars program, the institute has enough money to get the array up and running again within a couple months.

Shostak said it was encouraging to learn just how much people care about the quest to find life in the universe.

“For me it’s the general public — the fact that people are willing to reach into their wallets to pay for a voyage of exploration that might or might not succeed,” Shostak said. “SETI, despite the fact that it’s an uncertain bit of exploration with no guarantee of success, people find it interesting.”

Other contributors to the SETIStars fund include science fiction writer Larry Niven and Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, who wrote: “It is absolutely irresponsible of the human race not to be searching for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence.”