Wildfires bring headaches to everyone. In California, they now endanger the Allen Telescope Array. It is an array of 42 antennas used in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). The telescope threatened by fire may be irretrievably lost.
Searching for silence
Scientists have already evacuated the area. The fire dubbed the Dixie Fire makes it dangerous to stay nearby. It’s already burned more than 3,000 square miles. It ranks as the second largest fire in California’s history. And it’s one of eight major fires active in the northern part of the region.
“It’s an unfortunate fact. Suitable environments for telescopes are usually places where there are forest fires. The kind of radio signals the Array is looking for are microwaves. So, they are not hindered by the Earth’s atmosphere. That’s why you don’t put these instruments on mountaintops.” The SETI Institute (which operates the telescope) explains in a statement.
Radio telescopes are generally located in rural areas. The signals sought by the Allen Array are extremely weak. And radio silence is a necessity. This observatory was established in 1959. It was deliberately placed in a region of low population density. The surrounding landscape consists of grasslands and forests.
This is not the first time the Array has been threatened. In the summer of 2014, the so-called Eiler fire reached State Highway 89, i.e. it was four kilometers away from the antennas. The telescope threatened by the fire now was not affected at that time.
The Allen Telescope Array is a unique facility. It is the only radio telescope built with SETI as its primary activity. Its 42 telescopes are currently being upgraded with more sensitive receivers and tracking electronics. They continue to search for signs of the presence of technological societies in other star systems.