Radio telescopes of the Allen Telescope Array in Hat Creek,...

Radio telescopes of the Allen Telescope Array in Hat Creek, Calif. Credit: AP, 2007

Is there intelligent life on other planets?

It's a great question, but we're less likely to find out anytime soon because the world's most powerful E.T. hunting equipment has been shut down for want of funds.

The Allen telescope array -- really a collection of high-tech antennae pointed at the stars -- has been searching the cosmos for roughly five years on the premise that, somewhere among the billions of planets that might harbor complex life, somebody or something is using radio waves. Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen put up half of the roughly $50 million for equipment. It's been gathering data from the heavens at a facility in Hat Creek, Calif., run by the University of California at Berkeley 290 miles south.

But cuts in funding from Washington and Sacramento, places where signs of intelligent life are rare, have left a shortfall at Berkeley's partner, the SETI Institute (as in Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). So the Allen array has been placed in hibernation.

The shutdown is tragic, given recent data from the Kepler spacecraft suggesting the cosmos is full of planets that might support life. To resume eavesdropping on the universe, SETI needs $2.5 million more annually.

Money is tight everywhere, and nothing sounds nuttier than searching the skies for Martians. Yet surely a nation producing $15 trillion a year in goods and services can find a few coins between the sofa cushions to address one of the most profound questions ever asked: Are we alone?

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