LOS ANGELES — The search for intelligent life in the universe beyond planet Earth has been dealt a major blow by government spending cutbacks in the United States.
The world's only radio telescope array specially designed to detect potential signals from distant worlds was shut down this month after money ran out, said Seth Shostak, senior astronomer for the group that runs the northern California facility.
The setback comes at a crucial time for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, headquartered in Mountainview, Calif.
Astronomers there were anticipating a slew of possible new research targets from the dozens of potentially life-supporting planets newly detected by NASA's Kepler space telescope orbiting distant stars in the Milky Way galaxy.
"It's a frustrating thing to know that there are worlds out there that may have life, intelligent life, and not be able to look for them," Shostak told Reuters.
Shostak said the Kepler telescope has pinpointed about 50 potentially habitable planets beyond the solar system in the Milky Way, leading scientists to estimate the existence of at least 500 million such worlds in the galaxy.
The Allen Telescope Array, named for Microsoft Corp co-founder Paul Allen, one of its chief benefactors, consists of 42 dish-like antennas about 20 feet in diameter, operated as one large radio telescope in the Cascade Mountains east of Reading, California.
The site, which stretches across a third of a mile , resembles the fictional array operated by the character played by Jodi Foster in the 1997 science fiction film "Contact," based on the Carl Sagan novel.
Other radio telescope complexes are capable of searching for extraterrestrial signals in deep space, but only the Allen array was designed specifically for that purpose and was dedicated to that research around the clock, Shostak said.
What scientists are listening for in a galaxy filled with natural and artificial radio "noise" is a distinct, repeating pattern of electromagnetic signals, emanating from space, across a limited range of frequencies. Such a pattern could indicate that it was sent by intelligence life.
Built with private donations, and still expanding, the facility is part of the Hat Creek Radio Observatory, run by the the Radio Astronomy Lab of University of California, Berkeley.
But recent state budget cuts for University of California, Berkeley hit the project hard. Money from the National Science Foundation also has been scaled back drastically.
It costs about $1.5 million a year to operate the array, which has been running for five years, and at least $1 million to cover the related cost of the SETI research, according to the institute.
© 2015 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.