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Short-lived SETI.

Only one year after NASA launched the most comprehensive search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) ever undertaken (S&T: November 1992, page 507), the U. S. Congress dealt the program a mortal blow. Instead of granting the agency's $12.3 million request for fiscal year 1994, last September 22nd the Senate voted 77 to 23 to terminate all federal funding for SETI, save for $1 million to close up shop. Nine days later a House-Senate conference committee approved the plan, effectively killing the program.

SETI was a casualty of the United States' $4 trillion national debt. Representatives and senators seemed to think that stopping the search would demonstrate to voters that they were trimming excess fiscal fat -- though in fact the program cost each U. S. citizen only a nickel per year. The action essentially wastes the $58 million already invested in the program.

"We were not cut out of the budget based on merit," says Michael Klein, who managed the program's sky survey. "It was because Congress said, 'Who cares about searching for little green men?'" Project scientist Jill Tarter says the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, has contacted private individuals in an effort to raise $7.3 million over the next 1 1/2 years. The money would be used to install a 14- million-channel receiver, formerly used at the 305-meter Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, at the 64-meter Parkes telescope in Australia. Writer Arthur C. Clarke responded with a $7,500 donation and has urged others to follow his example.

NASA's targeted search using Arecibo eavesdropped for 200 hours on 24 solar-type stars. Meanwhile the sky survey scanned 2,646 square degrees of the heavens over a total of 1,000 hours using the 34-meter antenna at Goldstone, California. No confirmed signals from other civilizations were picked up by either search. The termination of federally funded SETI will also affect the other three major ongoing searches: the Planetary Society's Project META; SERENDIP III of the University of California, Berkeley; and the program at Ohio State University. All three received NASA grants, which means future upgrades in capability will be delayed. But they all have enough private support to continue searching, at least for now.

Project META recently concluded a 5-year survey of the northern sky with the 26- meter radio dish in Harvard, Massachusetts. Project scientist Paul Horowitz (Harvard University) looked for narrowband signals near 1,420 and 2,840 megahertz with his 8.4-million-channel receiver. Horowitz is now concentrating his listening efforts on 37 one-time-only signals that bear the hallmarks of an interstellar beacon. He will soon coordinate simultaneous observations between the Harvard antenna and a 30-meter dish in Argentina. Meanwhile he is building a 240-million- channel receiver that should be ready for action in 1995. Since the SERENDIP III search commenced in April 1992, it has logged about 4,800 hours near 430 megahertz while "piggybacking" on the Arecibo telescope. The Ohio State program will soon purchase a copy of SERENDIP's 4.2-million-channel receiver to hook to their football-field-length telescope. In the meantime, SERENDIP engineers are working on a new receiver that will boost the number of channels to 160 million.

Despite the existence of three ongoing searches and the likely continuation of at least part of NASA's effort, the congressional action has dealt SETI a severe setback. Employees of the NASA program are scattering to other projects. And with local radio interference steadily getting worse, many SETI proponents fear that NASA's effort was the last chance to conduct a comprehensive search from Earth's surface.

But the program's supporters remain undaunted. "We were able to leave a legacy," says Robert Arnold of the SETI Institute. "It was a serious scientific venture in spite of the superficial barbs thrown at us by politicians and critics in the media. People in the future will be smarter, and they will pick up the gauntlet and take it to its ultimate conclusion."
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Title Annotation:search for extraterrestrial intelligence
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Date:Mar 1, 1994
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