Sad news for astronomy and for alien research, and even worse news if there is in fact intelligent life out there wanting to contact Earth. The SETI Institute, which operates the Allen Telescope Array in northern Californa (made famous in the Jodie Foster film Contact), says that due to government budget cutbacks, it no longer has the funds to maintain its search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

The giant field of radio dishes has scanned for signals that might possibly emanate from alien civilizations for almost four years now. But last week, SETI Institute CEO Tom Pierson sent a letter to donors saying that the array was going into “hibernation” because of inadequate government support.

The timing couldn’t be worse, SETI scientists tell the San Jose Mercury News. Earlier this year, astronomers said that the Kepler space telescope had found over 1200 possible planets, dozens of which could be suitable in terms of size and temperature to sustain life.

“There is a huge irony,” says SETI Director Jill Tartar,” that at a time when we discover so many planets to look at, we don’t have the operating funds to listen.”

Funding has never been assured for the program as the search for aliens has often been derided as wasteful. Some private donations have helped support the effort, including money from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who helped raise the funds necessary to build the satellite array. Currently the project is run with support from the National Science Foundation as well as from UC Berkeley, but SETI has found its budget cut at both these federal and state levels.

The end – or rather, the hibernation – of the SETI telescope facility doesn’t mean the end of all SETI projects. The organization will continue the setiQuest Explorer, an app that lets citizen scientists volunteer some of their home computer’s processing power to search through data.

Those interested in looking at other alien data might also take a peek at a fascinating new dataset from Infochimps: data about 60,000 some-odd UFO sightings. But that’s hardly the same, of course, as scanning the universe for possible signals from alien life-forms.

In the meantime, SETI hopes that another agency will help pick up the tab for its operating costs, estimated to run about $5 million over the next two years.