It's a question which has always fascinated humans: Are we alone in the universe?

But the search for other intelligent life in space has been dealt a devastating blow which means we may never find out the answer.

The planet's only radio telescopes dedicated to searching for other life has been shut, the victim of U.S. government spending cuts.

© unknownClosure: The Allen Telescope Array, the world's last radio telescopes, are to be mothballed due to U.S. government spending cuts
The Allen Telescope Array in California has been mothballed after funding ran out, said senior astronomer Seth Shostak.

The action was taken after funding for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute, set up in 1984 to look for life beyond Earth, was cut to only a tenth of its former level.

The scientific institute was made famous in Carl Sagan's novel Contact and the film version made in 1997, starring Jodie Foster.

Her character worked day and night looking for signs of life in space.

The telescopes north of San Francisco search for radio signals which could be sent from Earth-like planets beyond the Solar System.

The institute needs around £2million a year to operate plus about £3million for an ongoing project that has identified 1,000 planets which could sustain life.

Paul Davies, an astrophysicist at Arizona State University, said the telescopes 'act as an emblem for the entire worldwide research effort'.

He added: 'It would be an utter tragedy if a unique research programme is abandoned for the cost of a few miles of motorway.

'Our society squanders vast sums on trivia and entertainment, yet cannot find some small change to address the burning issue of whether we are alone in the universe.'