Dotting a rocky plain north of Mount Lassen, 42 radio antennas are cocked like ears toward the sky, being readied for an expanded hunt for life beyond Earth. The Allen Telescope Array is slowly coming together as the new listening post for SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Graphic Credit: The Sacramento Bee
Shasta’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
In some of the most Northern reaches of California sits one of the most beautiful stretches of wilderness known as Shasta County.
The wilderness is exactly why this part of the state has become the site where man’s latest attempt to search for life in the universe that surrounds our Oblate Spheroid.
By installing an array of 350 antennas that will be point out into the sky from wilderness located just North of Lassen Volcanic National Park, it is hoped through no-profit support, an understanding of the origins and prevalence of life throughout the universe can be achieved.
The SETI Institute so far has been able to install only 42 of an anticipated 350 - or even 500 - radio antennas at the Hat Creek observatory north of Mount Lassen, at a cost of $50 million. And each one had to be disassembled and blasted with baking soda to dull the surface, when they showed up shinier than promised. Image Credit: Seth Shostak / SETI Institute
This excerpted from The Sacramento Bee -
If E.T. calls, these 'ears' will be listening
Nonprofit aims antennas at sky in Shasta County
By Carrie Peyton Dahlberg - Sacramento Bee, Published 12:00 am PDT Saturday, April 26, 2008
HAT CREEK – Dotting a rocky plain north of Mount Lassen, 42 radio antennas are cocked like ears toward the sky, being readied for an expanded hunt for life beyond Earth.
The Allen Telescope Array is slowly coming together as the new listening post for SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
Here at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory, silver-snouted antennas soon will take up the quest for a technological culture that is audacious or lonely or hopeful enough to deliberately beam a signal into the beyond.
It would be a sort of cosmic "Hey, is anybody out there?"
This summer, when the alien-hunting function of the telescope array is expected to start coming online, only a powerfully blasted or very close message would get through.
The array is missing 308 of the 350 antennas that the SETI Institute once hoped to have installed by this year. And equipment is still arriving to enable SETI operators to simultaneously focus on key stars while the antennas are also used in other research.
The Bay Area-based SETI Institute is dedicated to understanding the origins and prevalence of life throughout the universe. The scrappy nonprofit, which decorates some antennas with donor names and advertises an "adopt a scientist" program on its Web site, is scrambling for $35 million to $40 million needed to finish the array.
Even then, "finish" isn't quite the right word. Beyond 350 antennas, some researchers speak wistfully of what they might do with 500.
SETI runs on hope, fueled by yearning for the breathtaking long shot of alien contact. But its telescope is grounded in pragmatism.
"Even with 42 antennas, it will be an impressive survey instrument … really a uniquely powerful instrument," Carilli [a radio astronomer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in New Mexico, who is currently involved in telescope development in Chile] said.
The Allen array relies on multiple, small antennas to create a bigger picture. The complex electronic "back end" of the telescope can be turned into four different instruments, all using the same antennas for different purposes.
Only one of those instruments is devoted to the SETI search. Others are aimed at mapping galaxies, probing how stars are formed, and capturing the distant drama of black holes feeding and supernovas exploding.
Unlike optical telescopes, which measure stars and other objects in the visible spectrum, radio telescopes tune into the wavelengths emitted by solid objects, gases and electrons whirling through space.
Among astronomers, the telescope's progress is being followed closely because its solutions to technical problems could be incorporated into the next generation of much larger radio telescopes.
The radio dishes don't need to gleam, and astronomers had promised the Forest Service that they wouldn't, so that reflected sunlight would not hamper the wilderness experience for hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail just three miles east of the observatory.
When the equipment showed up shinier than expected, technicians began a tedious process of disassembling each antenna, blasting the curved dish with baking soda to dull the surface, then putting its delicate innards back in place. This week, the ground below some antennas was still dusted white with baking soda.
It has cost about $50 million so far to design, create and install the 42 antennas that make up the first phase of the Allen Telescope Array, named for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, whose foundation donated $25 million to the effort.
Other funds have come from private donors, UC Berkeley and the National Science Foundation.
Because so much expensive design and development work has been done, the remaining 308 antennas will be much cheaper, probably coming in under $40 million, said Jill Tarter, SETI director.
There is no firm timetable for completion, because that money is not in hand.
"If I had a check today, it would be two years," Tarter said.