Finding radio signals that may be sent throughout the Universe by advanced cultures living among the stars has fascinated researchers for quite some time, and, ever since the technology has become available, surveys of the skies have pointed telescope antennas at many sources of radio wavelengths, hoping to find messages in them. But scanning even a small portion of the extremely high number of stars out there is a very time-consuming process. This is where the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) comes in, as it has the possibility to scan more stars faster than any array on Earth, Nature News
Located in Hat Creek, California, the ATA now has a total of 42 six-meter dishes, as opposed to the 350 that were originally planned. While the facility has begun to make its observations in May, it already has financial programs, as its operators struggle to maintain it afloat. “We've had a chequered time here. We're skating on thin ice,” ATA Director Don Backer explains. The dishes are currently “combing” the center of the Milky Way, in a broad range of radio wavelengths, marking nearly 50 years since the concept of “search for extraterrestrial intelligence” (SETI) first appeared.
The problem that plagues ATA is a thorough lack of funding. The National Science Foundation has turned down a proposal for financing, saying that the array is big enough to start operating, but not big enough to be capable of transformational science. The costs of operating the facility, about $1.5 million per year, are supported by the US Air Force, which uses the sensitive dishes to track satellites and space debris in orbit. One third of ATA's operation time is given to the USAF, one third to radio astronomy, while the other third to SETI initiatives.
Some scientists will use the experience they accumulate creating and combining pictures from so many arrays in future observatories, such as the planned Square Kilometer Array. Backer says that he will make another proposition to the NSF, urging it to provide funding for doubling the number of existing dishes, from 42 to 84. This basically means that the NSF will have to grant ATA $6 million in funds, with the additional $5 million required to complete it coming in from private investors. The Allen Foundation and Taiwan's Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics are among the main funders.