The future of SETI@home, an Internet-based distributed computing experiment to find radio signals from intelligent alien life-forms, is in serious danger as academics behind the project face a funding crisis.
Australian scientists early next year were to be given a prominent role in the project to record data from radio telescopes and distribute it to the four million PCs volunteered to analyse it. However, that plan appears set to fail along with the entire project unless organisers can raise the sponsorship SETI@home needs to survive.
SETI@home chief scientist, University of California-based Dan Werthimer, has told SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Australia chairman, Dr Frank Stootman, that all work on SETI@home II, which would see radio data recording equipment installed at the Parkes telescope facility in NSW, had stopped until funding dollars to save the global experiment were found.
"I'm sorry we haven't been working on SETI@home II at Parkes," wrote Werthimer in an apologetic email to his antipodean colleague. "Our funding is drying up and we are very uncertain about the future of SETI@home I and II."
Werthimer said that SETI@home engineers had finished building a multi-beam down-converter and data recorder for Parkes but said that the project's organisers had no money to follow through on the work.
Werthimer has laid the blame for the funding drought squarely at the feet of tough economic times.
"I'm working hard trying to raise more funds, but as you know, it's not an easy time to raise money.
"Sorry things are so uncertain", he wrote.
The CSIRO Australian Telescope National Facility's Time Assignment Committee has already approved the installation of the equipment at Parkes. Chairman of the allocation committee, Professor Ray Norris, said he was not aware SETI@home was in danger of running out of funds.
The revelation comes at a time when there are indications that relations between SETI@home organisers and their home institute, University of California Berkeley campus, are strained.
According to sources close to ATNF, Berkeley may not be hosting the site that distributes data with the best graces.
"I know that the Berkeley isn't happy that its site is getting hammered by all these people wanting data because it creates a lot of traffic that they have to pay for," said the source.
Dr Stootman said it would be a terrible loss for the Australian astronomers if SETI@home could no longer survive. The situation has compelled Stootman to send out a plea for financial support to help ensure the future the project.
"If there are philanthropists who think the project is worthwhile, I would, on behalf of SETI Australia and UC Berkeley, gratefully receive it," he said.
SETI@home's current sponsor list includes Sun Microsystems, The Planetary Society, Fujifilm, IBM, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Quantum Corporation, Network Appliance and Informix.
US-based SETI scientists have held plans to host a data recording equipment at Parkes for over a year.
The Parkes facility is more powerful than that currently used to record the data at Arecibo, Peurto Rico and its addition would widen the search for extra-terrestrials to the Southern Hemisphere.
By harnessing the collective power of the PCs the project can approximate the work of supercomputers, vastly improving the probability of discovering intelligent extraterrestrial life.