BIG PINE, Calif. — There are few places in California where one can slide as easily into the past as the Inyo Mountains rising at the edge of the Owens Valley.
History, geography and climate have conspired to keep the modern age largely at bay. The range is high, empty and dry -- just the place, astronomers believe, to put a highly sophisticated group of radio telescopes to probe the dawn of time and the expansion of space.
Caltech and UC Berkeley are proposing to erect 23 radio dishes in a high mountain basin to gather clues about the evolution of the universe and the birth of distant solar systems.
But while the next generation of radio astronomers is counting on the $15-million project -- known as the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy, or CARMA -- there remain some very earthly concerns about its location in the largely unspoiled mountains.
Local Native American tribes complain that the 800-acre telescope installation will trample land roamed by their ancestors and which continues to be used as traditional gathering grounds.
And the local conservation chairman of the California Native Plant Society scolds that, of the two leading proposed sites, one is far too pristine for what he calls a "giant trailer park for telescopes."
The altitude and aridity that have kept the Inyos off the beaten track are precisely what attracts Caltech, which has for decades operated a radio observatory nearby on the floor of the Owens Valley.
Dry as the Owens is, it is even drier high up in the Inyos, which are in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada and next door to Death Valley. And the more arid the better for radio astronomy, since water vapor in the lower atmosphere absorbs and distorts radio signals. As radio telescopes have evolved and become more sensitive, atmospheric moisture has become even more of an issue.
Aside from the Inyos' wrinkle-inducing dryness, the range is also within driving distance of the two institutions that would operate the telescopes and use them as a critical training ground for graduate students.
"We produce the people and train the people who make the next generation" of astronomers, said Leo Blitz, director of Berkeley's radio astronomy laboratory. "They need hands-on experience with the equipment. That's how you learn."
Nine of the 23 telescopes planned for the Inyos would be moved down from Berkeley's Hat Creek installation in Northern California, where Berkeley plans to build a new telescope array. Caltech would move six telescopes up from its observatory facilities on the Owens Valley floor about 5 miles from Big Pine.
The other eight radio dishes would be built on site by the University of Chicago.
They would be placed on concrete pads scattered in a radial pattern across an area about a mile and a quarter in diameter, totaling 800 acres. The dishes could be hauled on trucks into different positions to obtain different observations. Two buildings for monitoring equipment also would be built on the site and manned around the clock.
By combining the telescopes into one grouping at about 8,000 feet, astronomers say the resolution of the antennae would be greatly sharpened and the dishes' collection area would effectively double. That is because the telescopes would work as one large instrument, with the smallest dishes -- arranged in the center -- acting as a zoom lens.
Developed in the late 1930s and '40s, radio telescopes catch radio signals emitted by cosmic sources. The signals are coordinated by a supercomputer, which then produces images that laymen may find unimaginable.
Astronomers should be able to trace the likes of blue dwarf galaxies, newly born stars, comets and cosmic radiation left over from the Big Bang by tracking radio wave emissions from molecules and dust throughout the universe.
"We basically have gone as far as we can go at our [Hat Creek] site, and the site at Owens Valley is insufficient to do the next generation of science," said Blitz, an astronomy professor who described Caltech and Berkeley as pioneers and friendly competitors in their particular fields of radio astronomy. "So going to a higher elevation gives us better sensitivity. And combining the arrays gives us better sensitivity and better imaging."
A similar, somewhat larger installation is planned by an international alliance for the Southern Hemisphere in Chile, but until that is completed around 2010, Blitz said the Inyo Mountains grouping would be the largest of its kind in the world.
But before it is built, the project has various hurdles to clear, chief among them the approval of the U.S. Forest Service, which has to grant a special-use permit for use of the Inyo National Forest land. Inyo administrators are expected to issue a draft environmental impact statement on the proposal this winter.