$100 Million Mission to Find Alien Life Denied Use of World's Largest Telescope

Thursday, 30 July 2015 - 3:22PM
Astronomy
Astrobiology
Alien Life
Thursday, 30 July 2015 - 3:22PM
$100 Million Mission to Find Alien Life Denied Use of World's Largest Telescope
Last week, some of the greatest minds in science announced the Breakthrough Listen initiative, undoubtedly the greatest attempt yet to find extraterrestrial intelligence. But that noble mission may have hit a snag, as the largest telescope in the world, the Arecibo Observatory, has denied the Breakthrough Initiative's request for a partnership. The reason? Federal budget cuts, of course. This is quite the tragedy, as the Arecibo has the capabilities to both send and receive radio messages throughout much of the Milky Way - which would inarguably be a great asset to Breakthrough Listen.

Funded by billionaire investor and former physicist Yuri Milner, the $100 million Breakthrough Listen initiative will bring these great minds together in order to scan the universe for extraterrestrial intelligence. Notable supporters include Stephen Hawking, Kip Thorne, NASA astronauts Mark Kelly and Thomas Stafford, SETI director Seth Shostak, and Frank Drake, who created the infamous Drake Equation. The initiative includes funding for partnerships with three of the world's foremost observatories: the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, the Automated Planet Finder telescope in California and the Parkes Observatory in Australia. But they're missing the white whale: the Arecibo Observatory, both the biggest and most sensitive single-dish radio telescope in the world.

Located deep in the Puerto Rican jungle, the Arecibo Observatory is owned by the National Science Foundation (or the NSF). The NSF is a federally funded agency and has sadly undergone some pretty drastic budget cuts, forcing it to cede some of its older projects, such as the Arecibo, to outside supporters. If these projects cannot find outside partners for funding, then they risk having to close their doors.

So it would seem that a partnership with the Breakthrough Listen Initiative would be a match made in heaven, but the NSF still must approve of any outside partnerships. If a project's use of the observatory interferes with Arecibo's obligations to the agency, then the NSF ceases to fund the observatory with their usual $4 million a year. As the Breakthrough Listen initiative would undoubtedly take up time that could be used on peer-reviewed science (which the NSF mandates), then the Arecibo cannot take the job without losing it's main source of funding and risking the closure of the facility.

It does seem as though the Arecibo Observatory will have the ability to take part in another Milner funded initiative related to Breakthrough Listen - a project that goes by the name Breakthrough Message. This initiative is described as an "open competition to design digital messages to send to extraterrestrial civilizations." The brains behind the project have stated that such messages won't be sent far and wide into the cosmos, an act that many astronomers caution against (what if the message is transmitted successfully to a society of advanced and hostile aliens?); rather, the messages will be targeted and specific. As sending such messages would definitely take up much less time than searching the universe for signs of alien chatter, it's probable that the observatory could take part without risking the loss of government funding.

Some may question whether or not the Breakthrough Listen initiative is really worth it - after all, if intelligent extraterrestrials really existed, shouldn't they have attempted to make contact by now? To refute this, many astrophysicists have used the analogy of dipping a spoon into the ocean and then concluding that there are no fish in the sea based upon the fact that none could be seen on the water in the spoon. Thanks to the Breakthrough Listen initiative, mankind has given up on the spoons and finally picked up a few fishing poles. Sadly, federal budget cuts mean one less pole in the water.

Via Scientific American.
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Astronomy
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