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Technologists Paul G. Allen and Nathan P. Myhrvold announce $12.5 million in support for revolutionary new telescope to advance Search for Extra- Terr

Press Release From: SETI Institute
Posted: Tuesday, August 1, 2000

Contacts:
Greg Klerkx, SETI Institute
Office - (650) 961-6633
Mobile - (415) 816-2310
E-mail - gklerkx@seti.org

Susan Pierson Brown, Paul G. Allen Charitable Foundation
Office - (425) 453-1940
E-mail - SusanP@vnw.com

Shelby Barnes, Intellectual Ventures (for Nathan Myhrvold)
Office - (425) 467-2303
E-mail - ShelbyB@intven.com

Technologists Paul G. Allen and Nathan P. Myhrvold announce $12.5 million in support for revolutionary new telescope to advance Search for Extra- Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI); new instrument to be called Allen Telescope Array, will also advance other astronomical research.

Mountain View, CA -- Investor and philanthropist Paul G. Allen and former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan P. Myhrvold will fund the development phase of a new telescope that will be the world's most powerful instrument designed to seek out signals from civilizations elsewhere in our galaxy.

Allen will provide $11.5 million and Myhrvold $1.0 million for a total gift of $12.5 million over three years. The announcement was made by the SETI Institute, the world's largest private organization conducting research to determine whether intelligent life exists beyond Earth. The Institute is a nonprofit organization based in California's Silicon Valley.

Today's announcement follows the April unveiling of the first prototype of the telescope, which is being designed jointly by astronomers and engineers at the SETI Institute and the University of California-Berkeley. Announced last year under a working title that described its 10,000 square meter collecting area -- the One Hectare Telescope -- the project will be renamed the Allen Telescope Array.

"For the first time in our history, we have the ability to pursue a scientifically and technologically sophisticated search for intelligent life beyond Earth at the same time we are doing traditional radio astronomy," said Allen, a long-time financial supporter of SETI and of scientific research in a variety of fields. "This new telescope will be the world's most powerful instrument for this search, and I am pleased to support its important work."

The primary electronics laboratory to be built on site in support of the Allen Telescope Array will be named for Myhrvold. A long-time SETI advocate, Myhrvold was a member of the international 'blue ribbon' team of scientists and technologists engaged in a two-year strategic planning effort in the late 1990s from which the Allen Telescope Array concept emerged.

"The Allen Telescope Array and associated laboratory are the latest steps in our exploration of the cosmos," said Myhrvold. "While the best scientific estimates tell us the probability of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is fairly high, there is great uncertainty and some controversy in the calculation. One thing however, is beyond dispute. That is, if we don't continue supporting projects like the Allen Telescope Array, our chances of discovery will remain at zero. While it's impossible to predict exactly what we will find with a new scientific instrument, we should remember that interesting science is not just about the likelihood of end results -- it is also about the serendipity that occurs along the way."

"Paul and Nathan have understood from the beginning how exciting and groundbreaking this telescope could be," said Jill Tarter, director of SETI research at the Institute. "They have contributed time and ideas to our work, and now they are quite literally giving us the means to make it happen. We are overjoyed, and we're ready to move ahead."

Scientists believe that radio waves, such as those commonly produced by a variety of technologies on Earth and traveling at light-speed through interstellar space, may offer the easiest way to detect evidence of a technologically sophisticated civilization elsewhere in our galaxy. With sufficient collecting area, it is possible to detect signals from a distant technology that are no more powerful than those produced on Earth today.

Until now it was only practical to construct the collecting area for major radio telescopes as a single enormous dish, such as the 1,000-foot-diameter Arecibo Telescope, or as several large dishes whose electronic output is combined. The 27 dishes of the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico, for example, have about the same combined collecting area as a single 420-foot-diameter dish. Larger collecting areas are always desirable for SETI because they can detect fainter signals.

The Allen Telescope Array will differ in practice, appearance and cost from optical and radio telescopes currently in use. It will be constructed using hundreds of mass produced small dishes. The telescope will incorporate innovative technologies and modern, miniaturized electronics in concert with large amounts of affordable computer processing. By doing so, it will be possible for the Allen Telescope Array examine up to a dozen SETI target stars simultaneously, and be sensitive to signals over a very wide range of frequencies.

The Allen Telescope Array will also be a premium instrument for more traditional research in radio astronomy. Simultaneous with SETI observing, the electronic outputs from all the dishes can be combined to produce a high spatial resolution image of a large area on the sky. Again simultaneously, spectrometers or pulsar processors can study interstellar chemistry, the structure of galactic magnetic fields, or the physics of rotating neutron stars.

"This is a win-win situation," said Tarter. "The Allen Telescope Array can be used by both radio astronomers and SETI scientists all the time."

Under current plans, the Allen Telescope Array will be developed in two phases. The first phase began last year with the development of the prototype unveiled in April and will culminate with a second, larger prototype in early 2003, this one a true proof-of-concept that can conduct SETI and radio astronomy research. At that point, with all the new technologies proven, a second-stage technical and funding review will occur.

On its current development and construction timeline, the Allen Telescope Array should be partially operational in 2004 and fully operational in 2005. Including the near-term research and development phase, the total estimated cost through construction of the Allen Telescope Array and support facilities is $26 million.

The construction and operation site for the Allen Telescope Array will be the Hat Creek Observatory, located 290 miles northeast of San Francisco on a site operated by UC Berkeley's Radio Astronomy Laboratory. The Hat Creek Observatory is located in an area that is 'radio quiet', thereby reducing for astronomers the level of interfering signals from man-made sources.

While pursuing the science and technology development for the Allen Telescope Array, the SETI Institute will also focus on raising funds for hardware and software upgrades anticipated during the telescope's operation. Thomas Pierson, Chief Executive Officer for the SETI Institute, said an important goal is to provide long-term upgrade capability for the array.

"The Allen Telescope Array can be improved constantly, at relatively low cost," Pierson said. "For instance, the telescope can be made more powerful by improving the software and incorporating new computing hardware, which continues to get better and less expensive. It can also be made more sensitive by adding more dishes to the array.

"An important next step is to ensure our ability to maximize the Allen Telescope Array's capabilities in the decades to come, and that will require continued funding," Pierson added.

To support the telescope's long-term operational capability, the SETI Institute announced that it is offering 'stakes' in the Allen Telescope Array through which individuals and organizations can join Allen and Myhrvold in the enterprise by naming individual telescope dishes in perpetuity for a contribution of $50,000. Stakeholders will be recognized with plaques placed at individual dishes, and in the proposed educational center to be built in conjunction with the Allen Telescope Array.

Pierson reported that a dozen stakes have been committed to date.

All project funding to date, including the support of Allen and Myhrvold, has been obtained under the direction of the SETI Institute. The Institute's Project Phoenix is currently the world's largest privately supported radio astronomy program, with an annual budget of more than $4 million. Project Phoenix and its scientists are widely held to be the models for much of the 1997 film Contact, starring Jodie Foster.

Under the working title 'One Hectare Telescope', the Allen Telescope Array is praised in the decadal 'roadmap' for U.S. astronomy and astrophysics recently released by the National Academy of Sciences. In this document, which informs U.S. science policy in these fields, the telescope is described as an innovative approach to SETI that will also pioneer techniques that could be used in the development of future generations of telescopes.

About the Paul G. Allen Charitable Foundation

The Paul G. Allen Charitable Foundation supports a wide variety of charitable endeavors in the Pacific Northwest. The Foundation is dedicated to promoting the health and development of vulnerable populations and to strengthening families and communities. The Foundation invests in projects and programs that address social challenges and promote positive change. Past grant recipients have included YMCA of Greater Seattle, The American Red Cross, and Chicken Soup Brigade. Founded in 1988, The Paul G. Allen Charitable Foundation is administered through Vulcan Northwest, Inc., of Bellevue, Washington.

PHOTOS/JPEGs/B-ROLL AVAILABLE

[NOTE: Images supporting this release are available at http://www.seti.org/general/ata_pr/index.htm]

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