- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 26, 2011

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIF. (AP) - In the mountains of Northern California, a field of radio dishes that look like giant dinner plates waited for years for the first call from intelligent life among the stars.

But they’re not listening anymore.

Cash-strapped governments, it seems, can no longer pay the interstellar phone bill.

Astronomers at the SETI Institute said a steep drop in state and federal funds has forced the shutdown of the Allen Telescope Array, a powerful tool in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, an effort scientists refer to as “SETI.”

The 42 radio dishes had scanned deep space since 2007 for signals from alien civilizations while also conducting hard scientific research into the structure and origin of the universe.

SETI chief executive Tom Pierson said in an email to donors last week that the University of California, Berkeley, has run out of money for day-to-day operation of the dishes.

“Unfortunately, today’s government budgetary environment is very difficult, and new solutions must be found,” Pierson wrote.

The $50 million array was built by SETI and UC Berkeley with the help of a $30 million donation from Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen. Operating the dishes costs about $1.5 million a year, mostly to pay for the staff of eight to 10 researchers and technicians to operate the facility.

The shutdown came just as researchers were preparing to point the radio dishes at more than 1,200 potential new planets identified by NASA’s Kepler Mission.

Leo Blitz, a professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley and former director of the observatory that includes the Allen Telescope Array, says the dishes are unique in their ability to probe for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations while gathering more general scientific data at the same time.

“That made the telescope a double-barreled threat,” Blitz said. He said he knew of no other facility in the country that was undertaking this kind of search for extraterrestrial life.

The SETI Institute was founded in 1984 and has received funding from NASA, the National Science Foundation and several other federal programs. Other projects that will continue include the development of software and tools to be used in the search for extraterrestrial life.