Washington (CNN) - In 1985, astronomer Carl Sagan wrote the novel "Contact" about a vast U.S. radio telescope that receives the first communication with extraterrestrial life. The best-seller became a 1997 film starring Jodie Foster that opened many eyes to how humans might first encounter space aliens.
Now, planning is under way for what will be the world's largest radio telescope, an array of 3,000 antennae set up in remote regions of the Southern Hemisphere that will have at least 50 times more capacity than anything before - including the Expanded Very Large Array (EVLA) that was the setting for the "Contact" film.
Called the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), it will bring closer the mind-boggling possibilities explored in the book and film, with new information on the origin of the universe and the formation of galaxies and black holes. The expanded reception of SKA might even capture that first extraterrestrial contact.
However, unlike in the book and film, the United States won't be a main player, at least for the next decade.
Tight funding in the budget-cutting environment of Washington and the uncertain final cost of the Square Kilometer Array have combined to kill U.S. government funding for it through 2021.
In the world of huge international astronomy facilities, that doesn't preclude any U.S. participation. American technology may well be vital in getting SKA built and operating, and U.S. funding for research conducted at the facility is likely.
For now, though, as the multinational project to be based in either South Africa or Australia moves from planning to construction to initial deployment in coming years, U.S. astronomers will be relegated to observer status.
"Demands for money in astronomy far exceed what's doable," conceded Jim Cordes, a Cornell University astronomer involved in radio telescope research. "You can't have everything. But on the other hand, my concern is that we're missing the boat ... on things that are going to be implemented 10 years from now."
For example, Cordes said, the SKA facility could be the first to detect gravitational radiation by using the radio signals from pulsars - rotating neutron stars - to reveal the distortions in space-time predicted by Albert Einstein.
The National Science Foundation decided against funding SKA for now, based on a review it commissioned with NASA and the Department of Energy examining priorities for the next decade. Titled "New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics," the decadal survey said there wasn't enough money to do everything desired.
While future opportunities involving new-technology systems are "considerable," U.S. participation in projects such as SKA "is possible only if there is either a significant increase in NSF-Astronomy funding or continuing closure of additional unique and highly productive facilities," the decadal review concluded.
Overall, SKA is projected to cost about $2 billion to get set up over the next eight years or so, along with more than $200 million a year in operating costs once it is operational. Organizers originally planned on the United States contributing a third or more of the total, or about $700 million to get it going and $70 million a year after that. The European Union is expected to be a major funder, with other participating countries also contributing.
However, the cost of the expected U.S. share was too much for an NSF division with a budget of about $250 million a year that is expected to increase to as much as $500 million a year by 2020.
James Ulvestad, the director of the NSF's division of astronomical sciences, explained that his decision to follow the decadal review's recommendation was based on several factors, including limited funds and a projected cost overrun for SKA.
An analysis of SKA completed as part of the decadal survey estimated a 70% chance that the project would end up costing up to $6 billion, or three times more than the initial price tag, Ulvestad said.
If that happened, he said, the United States might well lack the money to maintain its commitment down the road.
"Despite the unqualified enthusiasm for the science that this facility could deliver and the recognition that it represents the long-term future of radio astronomy, the committee encountered a major discrepancy between the schedule advertised by the international SKA community and the timescale on which the NSF could realistically make a significant contribution to SKA's construction and operating costs," the review said.
In addition, Ulvestad noted that SKA will depend on technological advances still being developed, such as increased computer speed and capacity, as well as cheaper electricity generation.
For example, the huge amount of data collected by the telescope will be 50 times greater than any similar facility in existence now, he said. That will require computers with a speed and capacity that don't exist today in what will amount to a leap in technology, according to Ulvestad.
Rather than jumping in now and paying the premium price for such advanced technology, he said, the decision was to focus on continuing research at existing facilities while incremental technological advances occur.
Facilities in the United States and elsewhere are developing some of the new technology now. The Expanded Very Large Array in New Mexico has increased working bandwidth by a factor of 80, Ulvestad said, which will contribute to the computer capacity needed to deal with the information collected by SKA.
He also said that politically, it would require "a really good reason" for going against the recommendation of the decadal review that was partly paid for by the NSF.
In the end, Ulvestad said, his decision puts off SKA to continue funding thousands of research projects at the EVLA and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile that are conducting what he called "forefront science."
It was either that, or having to halt research and perhaps decommissioning what are relatively new facilities such as EVLA for "the promise of a big future project," he said.
"Before you went down the road for this really expensive telescope, you have to think about what you're going to have to give up to get there," Ulvestad said.
Despite the government's decision, technology businesses such as IBM are discussing possible consortia with SKA to help develop some of the needed advances in computing and low-cost power generation.
Such private sector involvement would maintain a form of U.S. participation until a time when the government could step in, said Cordes, the Cornell astronomer.
"That's one of the lessons about big projects in astronomy, is that you have to be thinking in terms of multiple decades," he said. "It's pretty sobering."
The next big step for SKA is deciding where it will be based. The two finalists competing for host status are South Africa and Australia, both of which offer vast expanses of remote, semi-arid territory suitable for such high-tech radio antennae.
Both proposals include placing antennae in other nearby countries in order to achieve the full square kilometers of reception for the radio telescope. A final decision is expected in 2012.
When completed, the huge SKA telescope could provide a view of how the universe formed by collecting light waves, gamma rays and radio waves emitted millions, and even billions, of years ago that continue traveling through space, explained Bernard Fanaroff, South Africa's SKA project director.
Through those captured rays, scientists will see events such as stars and galaxies forming, Fanaroff said, adding: "Astronomy is unique in that it can look back in time."
Such achievements are still years off, though. At a recent meeting in Banff, Alberta, in Canada, the SKA original steering committee voted to disband as planned to make way for the next step in the project's leadership: forming a founding board to complete planning and launch construction of the project in coming years.
Fanaroff expects the United States to eventually assume a role in SKA, saying: "I don't think anyone would want to create the world's largest telescope without the United States being involved."
For now, U.S. involvement is limited to observer status on the founding board, which Cordes fears could amount to lost opportunity.
"My concern is that you look around at the meeting in Banff and you see a lot of young people from other countries, a lot of activity going on," he said. "The United States does look like it's bogged down in some respect, at least in that arena."
He paused slightly, then continued in a softer voice.
"It's not like things have halted; it's just that things have very much slowed down," Cordes said. "There's just a fear that if you slow down too much, you might have a lost generation."