by Daniel Oberhaus: Astronomers have been scanning the cosmos for signs of intelligent life for more than half a century…
and not only have they found jack shit, but they’ve hardly investigated the places where aliens might be hanging out. It’s not for lack of trying—it’s just that there are too many places to look.
Luckily for people involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), telescope technology has improved so drastically in the last few decades that some astronomers think we’ll make first contact with alien life within 20 years. Those strides are, in part, owed to one of the most important tools in SETI research: the Arecibo Observatory.
Arecibo is a radio telescope—by far the largest in the world, at least until China’s massive FAST telescope comes online later this year—and since the 1960s, it’s allowed astronomers to search for aliens deeper in space than any other telescope. Arecibo is also used to research the atmosphere of our own planet and hunt for giant asteroidsthat may be on a collision course with Earth. But now, Arecibo is at risk of being shut down for good, which could seriously bruise the search for extraterrestrial life.
Located in the jungles of Puerto Rico, Arecibo was originally built to track airborne Soviet warheads. But when it came online in 1963, it was primarily used to study the Earth’s atmosphere and celestial objects. In 1974, Carl Sagan and his colleague Frank Drake used Arecibo to send the first message on behalf of humans to a nearby cluster of stars called M13. The message contained information about human DNA and our number system, as well as pixelated drawings of a human, our solar system, and the Arecibo telescope itself.
“If we lose Arecibo, then we are losing about two-thirds of the volume of galaxy that we can search.” — Eric Korpela
Today, Arecibo is like Earth’s giant ear, listening for messages sent by extraterrestrial life. For now, it mostly picks up cosmic noise from stars and interstellar gasses. The SETI Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to finding alien life, has compared this to searching for a station on the radio: Most of it’s static, but when you hear music (or in this case, a message in modulated radio waves), you know you’ve found a station.
Arecibo allows researchers to look deeper into space than any other telescope, and it can scan larger sections of the sky than most newer radio telescopes, which are better at highly detailed readings. While the smaller telescopes are great for investigating a potential ET location, researchers need to scan large areas to find regions of interest, for which they need Arecibo.
“If we assume that an ET has some sort of technology level and is broadcasting at some distance, whether or not we can see them depends on the size of the telescope we use,” said Eric Korpela, the director of SETI@home, a project that allows anyone to donate his or her computer’s unused processing power to analyze Arecibo’s data. “If we lose Arecibo, then we are losing about two-thirds of the volume of galaxy that we can search using all the other telescopes operating right now.”
The problem is that searching for aliens ain’t cheap. Despite Arecibo’s usefulness, budget cuts have threatened the observatory’s existence since 2006, when the National Science Foundation (NSF) recommended slashing Arecibo’s budget from $10 million to $4 million between 2007 and 2011. Without an alternative source of funding, that would’ve forced the observatory to close.
Fortunately, the vocal support from a number of American politicians (including Hillary Clinton, a longtime friend to alien hunters) and leading scientific institutions helped cobble together funding to stave off the observatory’s closure for another few years. But nearly every year since, the NSF has threatened to divest in Arecibo.
“Arecibo could probably make a lot of revenue as an amusement park, but that’s not what we want to do.” — Robert Kerr
Those fears were renewed this May, when the NSF announced its intention to launch anEnvironmental Impact Assessment related to Arecibo. The review will look at the impact of changing the way the telescope is funded: co-funding the observatory with private institutions for science, co-funding the observatory with private institutions for education, shutting down the observatory’s scientific ventures while maintaining the facilities (known as “mothballing”), or shutting down and dismantling the observatory entirely. (There’s also the option to continue funding the observatory, but many researchers think that’s unlikely by virtue of the announcement.)
In other words, the way Arecibo is run and its operating budget are more than likely going to change significantly in the next few years—the question is whether these changes will spell the end of the observatory.
While NSF might cut the funding, it’s unlikely it would shut down the facility entirely. Arecibo is situated on top of a giant limestone sinkhole, and the cost of dismantling the facility would cost an estimated $100 million. This leaves two likely options: Take on private funding to keep Arecibo’s operations going, or end all scientific work and essentially turn the telescope into a museum.
“Private interest could get in the way of the scientific research,” said Robert Kerr, the former director at Arecibo, in an interview with VICE. “And yeah, Arecibo could probably make a lot of revenue as an amusement park, but that’s not what we want to [happen.]”
Last year, Breakthrough Listen—a SETI initiative founded with a $100 million donation from the Russian billionaire Yuri Milner—approached the observatory with a $2 million contract in exchange for use of the telescope. But Kerr said this investment proposal would’ve been used by the NSF as grounds for pulling its own funding from the observatory.
Since the Breakthrough contract wasn’t large enough to support the observatory on its own, the deal fell through. The disagreement over accepting funding from Breakthrough caused Kerr to step down as the observatory’s director last November.
But according to Francisco Cordova, Arecibo’s new director, “all options [for funding] are on the table at this point.”
Cordova was adamant that Arecibo’s closure “is not imminent at all,” but the NSF’s Environmental Impact Assessment has drawn a strong response from the scientific community, which perceives the threat to the observatory as a mortal one. As Kerr put it, “right now things look very bad for Arecibo indeed.”
A lot is riding on the findings of the NSF’s environmental assessment, which is expected to be completed by next spring. Even if saving the Earth and everything on it from total obliteration at the hands of a giant asteroid isn’t your thing, the rest of us are waiting for a phone call from ET—and it would suck to have the phone service disconnected before the phone ever rang.