Congress proposes funding search for intelligent alien civilizations

Position is a dramatic change regarding federal role in SETI.
By Laurel Kornfeld | May 11, 2018
A bill proposed by the US House of Representatives allocates $10 million to NASA to search for signaturesof intelligent alien civilizations, such as radio waves, over the next two years.

The proposal marks a complete change from 1992, when a NASA Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project involving the construction of two radio telescopes to listen for signals from alien civilizations was shut down by Nevada Senator Richard Bryan.

Now, US Representative Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who previously served as head of the House Science Committee and is also a denier of human-caused climate change, is advocating funds for a revamped SETI program "to search for techno-signatures, such as radio transmissions, in order to meet the NASA objective to search for life's origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe."

According to astronomer Jill Tarter, who served as director of the independent SETI Institute for 35 years, $10 million would fund the design and construction of new instruments capable of collecting data for analysis worldwide.

Tarter noted the bill is an authorization, not an appropriation, meaning its passage does not guarantee the appropriation of funds for a SETI program.

Private companies and independent organizations have maintained SETI programs, but federal involvement would infuse these efforts with a new level of energy, she stated.

"Earthlings everywhere are fascinated with this search and care about the answer. So, we should create an international endowment for searching for intelligent life beyond Earth. The backers should be private individuals, enlightened corporations, US federal agencies, and agencies from other governments around the world," Tarter emphasized.

"By smoothing out the funding roller coaster that has characterized this search from the beginning, it will be possible to attract the best and brightest minds with the best ideas from everywhere, and commit to the long-term search efforts that might be required for success."

Having grown more sophisticated over the years, current technology makes it possible for astronomers to detect faint, distant signals that would have been undetectable in the past, Tarter said.

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