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Space The Almighty Buck Science

Allen Telescope Array Shut Down 98

Posted by Soulskill
from the ears-wide-shut dept.
SETIGuy writes "The Allen Telescope Array has been put into hibernation due to lack of funds to continue operations. Most of the technical staff have been laid off or moved to other projects. It's too early to call it closed, but the hibernation state can only last for 6 months or so before a full shutdown is necessary. Coming back from a full shutdown would be expensive. It's unfortunate that the telescope never received the funding to build the 350 dish antennas that would make it a world class instrument. In its current 42-antenna state, it is not a significant enough improvement over other telescopes to attract enough funding to keep operating."
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Allen Telescope Array Shut Down

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  • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Monday April 25, 2011 @03:06PM (#35933880) Homepage
    Well, I read it as the "Alien Telescope" and started to wonder if funding problems were universal, so to speak. Then I looked it up - Alien telescope is actually pretty close, but it's named after Paul Allen [wikipedia.org] (the Microsoft Billionaire that has his own submarine, etc).

    Reality sucks most of the time.
    • I had to go back and reread the title myself, at first I thought your post was just a joke. If you hadn't specifically mentioned Allen's name I wouldn't have thought it was wrong at all.
      • Funny/Embarrassing thing - I had thought the word in the title was "Alien" until I read the grandparent post! I was thinking "what is this 'Alien Telescope Array' and why haven't I heard anything about it until now?"

        In any case, at least skimming through the Wikipedia article it sounds like the bulk of the funding came from Paul Allen. While the Scientific American article plays this as a byproduct of the budget crunch, I'd be curious to know how much of its cash came from actual government sources and how

    • by oni (41625)

      In all honesty, they might have gotten more funding for it if it wasn't an ego trip for a billionaire. I never understand what these guys are thinking, slapping their name on everything. You're still going to die dude.

      But anyway, do I want to give my money to make sure a billionaire's telescope stays in operation? Not really. Would I give money to see that the Carl Sagan telescope stays in operation? Maybe.

    • Paul Allen? What? It says "Alien".

      (Rereads headline.)

      DAMMIT!

  • It would only be fair to point out that this array wasn't just looking for little green men. It was also doing a lot of mainstream survey that could actually prove useful. I suspect its association with SETI is one of the reasons it's had a tough time--as it's made it more a "fringe" project than it needed to be and overshadowed the other survey work it was doing.

    • by icebike (68054)

      But I wonder if it wasn't too concentrated [wikimedia.org] to make it a world class device, even if it did get built out to the full compliment.

      Can't you do just as much with fewer dishes by organizing them into a very long baseline array?

      • by SETIGuy (33768) on Monday April 25, 2011 @04:02PM (#35934626) Homepage

        I don't think that picture is to scale on dish size. I think the runway is at least 3000 feet long and 60 feet wide. The dishes are much smaller than what's shown.

        The goal with ATA was to use small inexpensive dishes to get about 10,000 m^2 of collecting area. To get the best interferometry you want to use a wide variety of baselines. Short spacing give large structure. Long spacings give you small scale structure. Without a large number of baselines you have a hard time getting absolute intensities of structures. With regularly spaced arrays, such as the VLA, intensities are often normalized to single dish measurements. Most of the time VLBI is used only for positional information (i.e. to measure the parallax and proper motion of a pulsar) rather than intensity information and only gives information along the axis perpendicular to the baseline of the telescopes used.

        ATA was a tradeoff between expense, difficulty of routing signal fibers, available land, collecting area, and angular resolution. Had it been fully built, it would be an amazing instrument.

    • by ethanms (319039) on Monday April 25, 2011 @03:50PM (#35934460)

      What is to skeptical about when it comes to SETI? I mean, do you doubt the existence of ET intelligence? The current programs ability to find them? Or do you question the current desire of some to find them?

      Now... if you want to doubt the current programs that's one thing... looking simply at radio waves is a narrow focus based on what we currently believe to be the best way to transmit information in our particular place. In 200 years we might look at the concept of radio transmission in the same way that today we look at the concept of using drums or smoke signals for communication... slow data rate, limited range, etc...

      But each time you look up at that sky realize that some of those dots are not actually suns... they are entire GALAXIES of suns. With millions of potential star systems why is it so difficult to believe that some of them might contain a civilization that is at a point which is equal to or far greater then our current current state of technology and may in fact be transmitting something we can "hear"? ...and if it's because "we're too far to bother", imagine if people had said that back in the days of sailing ships and horses... the desire to travel great distances in the shortest possible time has pushed for some amazing discoveries.

      • by rubycodez (864176)
        Very few of those dots are galaxies, maybe six if you went all over the world and looked at the sky far from cities....the human eye can only see Andromeda and a few bright companions of the Milky Way.

        It could very well be that multi-cellular life is unique to Earth, or intelligent life is. Life itself might be due to peculiar unique thing to earth, perhaps the accident that made our moon and mars.
        • by blair1q (305137)

          Andromeda's a smudge, not a dot. And you can't see it from a city. At least not one whose power grid hasn't been recently bombed out.

          • by rubycodez (864176)
            It's actually disappointing, how few stars there are in the sky that can be seen, two or three thousand at any one time under the most ideal conditions. Suppose that the chances of intelligent life are on average one per milky-way sized galaxy, then each such planet would be essentially alone and never able to communicate with another and would forever be unaware of the other's existence.
          • by M1FCJ (586251)

            Last night from the little town I live 30 miles out of London I could only see the major constellations. Everything else was washed out by the light sources.

            The Campaign for Dark Skies is doing excellent work here in UK, eventually one day we will have sensible lighting all around us.

            • by blair1q (305137)

              I can still remember the night about 10 years ago when they powered-up the lighting on just one brand-new automobile dealership 4 miles from my house, and half the stars that were there the night before, weren't there any more.

              I can also remember lying on my back on a beach in the Grand Canyon on a moonless night, seeing the sky the way every human used to see it, and seeing everything around me castng sharp shadows just from starlight.

              We could actually see at night, until we started using light to see by.

      • by hawguy (1600213)

        What is to skeptical about when it comes to SETI? I mean, do you doubt the existence of ET intelligence? The current programs ability to find them? Or do you question the current desire of some to find them?

        I'm skeptical that radio searches are the way to find them. I believe that due to the shear number of galaxies and stars out there, that the one in a trillion chance of life must have been repeated many times so it's very likely that ET intelligent life exists.

        However, we're already seeing why leaking radio waves are not going to find any ET's - in the hundred years since radio was invented, we are well on our way with replacing high powered analog transmitters with much lowered powered digital and spread s

      • by blair1q (305137)

        That "travel farther in less time" thing is hitting walls all over the place.

        It's not a matter of serendipitous engineering discoveries, sweat equity, and balls any more.

        You're going to have to find a new branch of physics that allows such travel.

        As for why haven't they visited? Well, have you actually checked out the livingroom of every dust mite in your mattress? Gone out of your way to commune with the coyotes who live on the other side of the hill you drive by on your commute? Put 3/4ths of your planeta

  • by vlm (69642) on Monday April 25, 2011 @03:19PM (#35934022)

    It's too early to call it closed, but the hibernation state can only last for 6 months or so before a full shutdown is necessary. Coming back from a full shutdown would be expensive.

    Can anyone find the quote above anywhere other than /., and/or explain why?

    I've spent a substantial number of years tangentially involved with production telecom microwave dishes and also ham radio microwave stuff. I don't know of any inherent technological limitation relating to 6 months... Maybe they mean something calendar based, like no snow removal in October means the dishes have to come down before they smashed down? Its not like lichen will colonize the LNAs or the support arms grow like untrimmed trees or any other inherent technological limitation. Maybe the next site rent payment (real rent or property tax) is due in 6 months and its pay up or hit the streets.

    • I would expect it's more a personnel issue. "Most staff" have been laid off, so presumably the rest will at the end of the hibernation state when the money to maintain the hibernation runs out.

    • Re:Why? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by SETIGuy (33768) on Monday April 25, 2011 @03:39PM (#35934302) Homepage
      It's inside knowledge. I don't think it's published anywhere. My understanding is they are keeping the receivers cold and power to some systems on to preserve them. That costs some real money, and that determines how long they can stay in that state. The trade off is that you can return to operation from hibernation state fairly quickly and cheaply. Once they go to full shutdown, they'll be disassembling the telescopes and bringing critical components inside. Coming back from that state would be very expensive.
      • by vlm (69642)

        OK liquid nitrogen cooled LNAs... Err... I realize its been a couple years, but our pressurized waveguides only lasted a couple weeks between liq N2 dewar fills. Is the state of the art more than 6 months now? Or maybe their waveguide runs are much newer and shorter than ours (equals less leaks)

        • by SETIGuy (33768)
          I think they might have closed cycle LN2 refrigerators at each telescope so as not to require require refills Refilling dewars at 42 dishes will keep you busy. Refilling them at 350 dishes would drive you nuts.
    • Re:Why? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by petermgreen (876956) <plugwash@@@p10link...net> on Monday April 25, 2011 @04:23PM (#35934866) Homepage

      One thing you learn from talking to people who work with radio astronomy is that "low noise" means different things to different people. Telecoms guys are usually satisfied with the results they can get from room temperature amplifiers. Radio astronomers are not, they run their amplifiers at liquid nitrogen or sometimes even liquid helium temperatures.

      This leaves a problem if they want to shut down, if they keep the cooling systems turned on then the cooling systems keep costing money to run and maintain. If they turn the cooling systems off then they risk damage from the warm up and the following cool down.

      I suspect 6 months is how long they can afford to keep the cooling etc running before they have to give up and let the system warm up

      • I work on a telescope that uses helium-based refrigeration systems like these, and they don't keep running more than a few months without maintenance. The displacer seals get worn out, and things go south fast.
  • Before everyone starts arguing about the merit of SETI, I should point out that SETI was only one small part of what this telescope would have done. I would estimate that less that 5% of the observations made were SETI related.

    But, unfortunately, with only 42 dishes, the ATA was outclassed by other telescopes for most any purpose for which it was used. Even in SETI observation, the Arecibo telescope is more sensitive, and has a wider simultaneous field of view. The Green Bank Telescope also has a larg

    • by ethanms (319039)

      Hey, so what was up w/ the 6 months thing? What is the difference between Hibernation and Shutdown and why is 6 months a key number?

      BTW, I agree w/ your Sig and make a money donation to UC-B for Seti each year, as well as run a few machines for the project... since 1999 :)

    • by vlm (69642)

      But, unfortunately, with only 42 dishes, the ATA was outclassed by other telescopes for most any purpose for which it was used. Even in SETI observation, the Arecibo telescope is more sensitive, and has a wider simultaneous field of view. The Green Bank Telescope also has a larger field of view covers, the same range of sky, and has about the same sensitivity.

      I've had one foot each in two optical hobbies for a couple decades now, microscopy and telescopes.

      The thing I always enjoyed about microscopy is people are cool and supportive with having a microscope purely for the sake of owning a microscope. Any "new" microscope is cherished and everyone cheers for everyone else's purchase and we microscopists all hold hands and sing campfire songs to each other with smiles on our faces and a giving spirit in our hearts; if someone needs to "borrow" a box of coverslips

      • by nebosuke (1012041)

        Based on my interactions with people from both groups, I gather that it mostly stems from the fact that the subjects of microscopic observations are, for most practical purposes, exclusive to a specific microscope--especially where dynamic (and sometimes interactive) systems or events are concerned. In the case of telescopes used for astronomy, they are all pointed at the same, largely static things. The data from major telescopes is often made widely available such that there is essentially no scientific

  • ... needs to match his long time friend's funding.
  • Why are we trying to find aliens? Any race that gets to the top must be a murderous race, and aliens are no exceptions.

    • by ethanms (319039)

      One might posit that in our present state we have halted, or at least significantly slowed, our own evolution by Darwinian standards... after all, how can evolution continue when for the most part most of the world's people live long enough to reach sexual maturity and the vast majority of which have sufficient free will when it comes to procreation.

      So perhaps an alien race capable of finding us would simply be "us", but several hundred (or thousand?) years advanced from our present technology level, they m

      • by vlm (69642)

        they may simply be bored and looking to travel just as we have people living in "developed" countries today who travel to various locations around the globe for benign purposes.

        AKA "sex tourism"?

        (sorry, couldn't resist bringing that up)

      • Once civilization got going, i.e. any group of human larger than family unit, we began the evolution of weakly superhuman entities: villages, tribes, city-states and on up to empires. And that evolution continues with competition between corporate entities, kingdoms and governments today. Continue this evolution another few millenia to get to the point where interstellar wayfaring is possible and I doubt very much that any aliens that show up will be tourists. Most likely they will be an appendage of a v
    • Why are we trying to find aliens? Any race that gets to the top must be a murderous race, and aliens are no exceptions.

      Well, if there actually are aliens, and they actually are murderous, that would be an extremely good reason that we should be looking. It's only the imaginary monster under the bed for which it's true "if you pretend you don't see it, then it won't hurt you."

    • by lxs (131946)

      That's why we need to find them before they find us.

  • It is Allen (A L L E N) not Alien (A L I E N)

  • Can't they get by on 42? That ought to be enough to answer any questions about life, the universe, and uh, you know... whatever else...

  • ATA operations cost about $1.5 million per year, Pierson said, and the SETI science campaign at ATA costs another $1 million annually.

    So, 20 years of operation cost about the same as one extra F/A-18E/F [bloomberg.com]? Nice.

  •     I can only think about the massive lawsuit Mr. Allen attempted last year was
        to be a further fund arm for projects like this.

    http://news.cnet.com/8301-13579_3-20025438-37.html [cnet.com]

        Ok, Google, you have Google Sky, you got out of a stupid lawsuit, here's
        a tax writ ..... good project!

  • In its current 42-antenna state, it is not a significant enough improvement over other telescopes to attract enough funding to keep operating.

    ... I would have thought that 42 [wikipedia.org] dishes would be enough to even determine
    the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything [wikipedia.org]...

  • Since all it would take is just one alien species, capable of building a self-replicating robot ship, to populate the entire galaxy with probes in the astronomical blink of an eye, I'd say that there is likely another species out there shielding us from the discovery. Either that of there is no one else. In both cases, searching for signs of intelligent life is going to be a waste of time and money.

  • Some film studio could buy it up and use it for making a movie about a message from ET's

  • Well, that figures (Score:3, Insightful)

    by cdrguru (88047) on Monday April 25, 2011 @05:23PM (#35935572) Homepage

    VLA is being shut down soon, I think sometime in 2012 . It is perhaps going to be replaced by an array in Chile.

    Aricebo is being shut down as well.

    Sort of makes sense that we wouldn't build a real replacement in the US an even if we did, it would get shut down as well.

    Frankly, nobody is all that interested. There are much more interesting things to spend money on than science, things that people watching American Idol want to hear about. The few people that might be interested in science, well, they are just nerds anyway and don't count.

    Science just isn't all that popular.

    • by ogre7299 (229737)

      The VLA is not being closed, it has been substantially upgraded and is now known as the EVLA, E for expanded. The array being constructed in Chile ALMA the Atacama Large Millimeter Array operates at higher frequencies 88GHz to ~700 GHz whereas the EVLA operates between 74MHz and 50 GHz. They are complementary facilities, in addition, ALMA is a multinational project, Europe, Japan, and the US. Arecibo has been under discussion for closure for many years; however, to restore the site to its natural state (as

    • The VLA is not being shut down, nor is it being replaced by some array in Chile. I work in the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) Socorro, NM, office, so I know.

      They are currently completing substantial Enhancements to the VLA, so it is becoming known as the EVLA. There has been talk of completely renaming it, though I don't know if that will actually happen. Anyway, the enhancements amount to replacing all of the 70s electronics with modern stuff. The VLA dishes, transporters, and track are remain

  • If the instrument cannot attract funding it is time to phase it out. We can't keep running all scientific instruments ever built, even if scientific staff would like us to do so. As new and more powerful instruments are installed, resources have to be shifted over.
  • Maybe Paul Allen realized that the Fermi Paradox was worth pondering. The late Michael Crichton gave a speech titled "Aliens cause global warming" at Cal Tech in 2003 (Read it here http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122603134258207975.html [wsj.com]) I found it educational. Not that doing the research was a bad idea, but after forty years we should have detected something more conclusive than the "wow" event. It means that there are no signals to detect (either they don't exist or are so attenuated that they cannot
    • by bledri (1283728)

      ... after forty years we should have detected something more conclusive than the "wow" event. It means that there are no signals to detect (either they don't exist or are so attenuated that they cannot be detected) or that there is some flaw in our approach to detecting the signal. ...

      Or maybe space is big [quotationspage.com]...

  • Interesting that they are one of the sponsored organizations for the Google Summer of Code [google-melange.com]. I guess we only have to wait a few hours to find out if any talented students will get awarded the chance to work on this since Seti Institute [seti.org] was mentoring a couple of projects

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