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The Allen Telescope Array is back!

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A note from TED Prize winner Jill Tarter

At TED last February, Chris Anderson told the audience that without a White Knight stepping up to support my SETI observing program on the Allen Telescope Array, the antennas would soon be put into a safe hibernation mode in preparation for shutting down the array. That’s because our University of California Berkeley partner was no longer able to find federal and state funds to pay for operations of the Hat Creek Observatory where the array was built. No White Knight materialized; hibernation commenced April 15. Since April, the cryogenics have been kept running to protect the delicate low noise amplifiers in the innovative feed/receiver systems on the antennas, physical security has been maintained, our extraordinary computing equipment has been stored in our Mountain View lab for safekeeping, but the weeds on site grew unchecked, and no data were taken from the sky.

But we never lost the dream of re-starting. Recovery was a three-part process: first, working with UC Berkeley to forestall the immediate site remediation activities that would be required at the cessation of the US Forest Service land use permit; second, find a new task for the array and a partner to maintain and operate it while sharing time with SETI; and third, find support for my SETI team to restore our observing capabilities and once again begin exploring the sky. It hasn’t been easy, and the future is still a bit uncertain, but as of September 1, we were back on site, greasing antenna bearings, reinstalling computers, rewriting software to accommodate new modes of operating, fixing a frozen compressor on the old HVAC system, and yes, mowing down the weeds. We have a short-term contract to assess the utility of the Allen Telescope Array as part of the US Air Force’s important space situational awareness mission, and we hope this will turn into a long-term partnership. We are working with the Forest Service to have the land use permit transferred. We also experimented with crowdfunding to raise the money needed for my team to do the work involved in getting the array and our SonATA signal detection system up and running again -– thousands of wonderful SETI Stars from around the world came to our aid on, meeting the 40-day funding challenge we set -– WOW!

In a delightful coincidence, we were finally ready to relaunch our SETI exploration of the 1,235 exoplanet candidates announced last February by the Kepler mission (the worlds that we had been targeting prior to hibernation), and the date of our relaunch was yesterday; the opening day of the First Kepler Science Conference! We started observing again and the Kepler team announced the discovery of Kepler 22b, the first Earth-size planet in orbit within the habitable zone around a star like our Sun -– not quite Earth 2.0, but getting close. And by the way, they also gave us another 1000+ exoplanet candidates to explore.

So for the next two years or so, we know exactly what we need to do, and where we want to look. Planets are real, planets are plentiful, and some of the systems are starting to look a bit familiar. What a great time to be doing SETI! Federal and institutional funding sources have brought the search for life elsewhere in the galaxy to an exciting threshold. My astrobiology colleagues will be trying to search for biosignatures from exoplanets circling other stars, and at the Center for SETI Research we are moving forward with the public’s quest to know whether there is any intelligent, technological life on these worlds. As always, the funding for the SETI effort needs to be found: about $100,000 a month, every month, every year. We are going to repurpose and evolve to allow supporters to more closely follow our progress, to interact with us in ways that keep them involved and motivated. The setiQuest community that launched as part of my 2009 TED Prize wish is already helping us with the technical challenges of our work. This is humanity’s search, and we cannot do it without global support — some of which I hope will come from the TED community.