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Shrinking funds pull plug on alien search devices

Alien search deviceIn 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.

"There's plenty of cosmic real estate that looks promising," Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the institute, said Tuesday. "We've lost the instrument that's best for zeroing in on these better targets."

The shutdown came just as researchers were preparing to point the radio dishes at a batch of new planets. About 50 or 60 of those planets appear to be about the right distance from stars to have temperatures that could make them habitable, Shostak said.

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

SETI Institute 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.

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