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The Paul Allen-backed effort to communicate with alien life has hit a serious financial snag. The SETI Institute, which operates the Allen Telescope Array in northern California, says the government budget crunch has forced the organization to put the search for extraterrestrial intelligence on hold.

In 2001, Allen agreed to bankroll the initial construction of the radio telescope array, investing tens of millions into the project through his family foundation. Former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold also is a supporter of the organization, which completed the first phase of the project in 2007 with 42 antennas.

But the group has run out of operating funds for the telescope array, with SETI astronomer Seth Shostak telling the San Jose Mercury News that the suspension of the project is the equivalent of “the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria being put into dry dock.”

A spokesman for Allen’s foundation said via email, “We partnered with Berkeley and SETI for more than 10 years and contributed more than $30 million to design, build, and operate the ATA. We are proud of the technology that was developed in conjunction with our partners and are happy to see it showing up in other telescope designs around the world. We maintain hope that funding for continued operations will be found.”

The telescope array is just one of Allen’s many interests, which have been documented in great detail in recent weeks as the billionaire touts his new memoir “Idea Man.”

Allen talked about SETI on Friday night, without addressing the current funding crunch, during an appearance at Seattle’s Town Hall.

“It’s a very, very long shot, and if they do hear something, they’re supposed to call me,” he said. “But my Blackberry, nothing. It’s not even vibrating. No, imagine how all of our lives would be stimulated and changed if there were other societies out there beyond our solar system. It’s a very, very long shot. But I thought it was worth it.”

The telescope array has other goals beyond communicating with ET. The organization’s Web site says that the telescope array is also trying to:

  • Measure the magnetic fields in the Milky Way and other Local Group Galaxies to probe the role of magnetic fields in star formation and galaxy formation
  • Detect the gravity-wave background from coalescing massive black holes through pulsar timing

In a letter to supporters, SETI Institute CEO Tom Pierson described the project as being placed into “hibernation,” due to lack of government financial support.

John Cook is co-founder of GeekWire. Follow on Twitter: @geekwirenews and Facebook.

Photo Credits: SETI

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