The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program has not gone unscathed from the recent economic turmoil. In fact, in April of last year, their flagship radar field went dark. However, renewed funding has brought the radars back online and their hunt will soon be aided by the largest telescope the earth has ever seen.
The Allen Telescope Array is named after its main donor, Steve Allen. Run by the University of California Berkeley's Radio Astronomy Laboratory, its day to day operations have relied on funds from the National Science Foundation and the state of California. In April of 2011 those funds ran dry, causing the humongous 42-dish field to turn off the lights. Many feared that this heralded the end of SETI.
Meanwhile, alongside the headlines regarding SETI's demise, were stories of planets being discovered that could potentially harbor life and signs that Mars and even the moon could have been more hospitable to life in the past than previously thought. One SETI scientist, Dr. Paul Davies of the University of Arizona, even suggested that we review high-definition images of the moon to look for signs of ancient alien civilizations.
The excitement for the potential discovery of life beyond our planet, just beyond our grasp and right around the corner, almost seems palpable. In such an environment, how can SETI be left for dead? It appears this disparity has not gone unnoticed, for funding has recently come forth allowing the Allen Array to come back online. In December 2011, the weeds were pulled back off of the massive radar dishes, and once again they began listening for stray extraterrestrial radio signals.
More good news for SETI has come from overseas. The Netherlands has brought online the largest radiotelescope in the world. Dubbed LOFAR (LOw Frequency Array), when completed, it will consist of 20,000 antennas spread across Europe and linked together with fiber optics. The data they collect is sent to a supercomputer at the University of Groningen and then transmitted to the Netherlands Radioastronomy Institute. According to the Daily Galaxy, when completed, "LOFAR will have a resolution equivalent to a telescope 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) in diameter." 16,000 antennas are currently online with plans for the project to be completed in mid-2012.
This massive radiotelescope will serve many purposes, one being to listen to signals for SETI. With all of this power you would think it is only a matter of time before we will be able to tune in on some extraterrestrial talk radio. That is, of course, if aliens even use radio. They could use other types of technology for communication, or they may have transcended the need for talk radio at all. Either way, at least for now, SETI has overcome its most recent economic hurdle to ensure we can continue listening to the stars.