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E.T.'s new phone operator

Acres of telescopes near Mt. Shasta tilt an ear to the cosmos

June 01, 2008|John Johnson Jr. | Times Staff Writer

HAT CREEK, CALIF. — In this remote volcanic valley near Mt. Shasta, 42 telescope dishes have sprouted amid the soaring ponderosa pines, listening for a voice from space.

Every few seconds the 20-foot-wide dishes, scattered over dozens of acres, pirouette in perfect synchronicity, like dancers practicing their pas de deux before opening night.

Rick Forster, a slight, 59-year-old astronomer with the long beard of a man who has spent years in the solitude of the forest, said that after fine-tuning the dishes over the next few weeks to function as a single, giant ear, the real show will begin: listening for E.T.

The Hat Creek Radio Observatory will be the biggest radio telescope in the world specifically designed to search for extraterrestrial intelligence when the full 350-dish array is completed in the next few years.

"It's nuts to think we're alone," said Forster. He works with the SETI Institute and UC Berkeley, which are jointly installing the array.

"It's just a matter of looking in the right direction, at the right time, at the right frequency, with the right algorithm," he said.

Over the last few decades, researchers for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) have relied on borrowed telescope time to scan 1,000 stars for a signal from a technologically advanced culture.

The new array, funded by a $30-million gift from Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen, will enable researchers to search a million stars over 10 billion radio channels.

"The cosmic haystack is about to get enormously bigger," said Jill Tarter, director of SETI's research department.

She declined to estimate the odds that this new pitchfork will actually uncover an alien civilization. But she has a growing sense of excitement as the new telescope prepares to sweep the heavens for beeps and burps that could signal alien intelligence.

"It's hard to imagine how stupendous it would feel to find something," Tarter said in an interview at SETI's Mountain View headquarters.

A plain-spoken woman with a shock of silver hair cut short, Tarter was the model for the Jodie Foster character of Ellie Arroway in the 1997 movie "Contact," about the discovery of an alien broadcast. She has spent more than four decades -- her entire career -- trying to answer the are-we-alone question.

Now 64, she still hopes that, like Arroway, she will get her eureka moment. If humans do find something, everything we think we know about our place in the universe will be in for serious rewriting, she says. Human beings would no longer be creation's crowning achievement. In fact, we might not even make honorable mention.

"If we find a second technological civilization, we will know there are many," Tarter said. Earth would be transformed from an outpost to just another commuter station on a nearly infinite railroad line.

But Tarter is trying to keep her expectations low.

"It's also possible we are unique," she said.

The middle of nowhere

Hat Creek is one of those places you'd never stumble on. It's 30 miles from the closest community -- Shingletown, an assemblage of castaway shops centered on a rollicking bar and restaurant along the highway that's crowded with enthusiastic imbibers at midday.

"There ain't a lot of culture," Forster said.

What makes this place a challenge for human beings, however, makes it nearly perfect for radio telescopy.

To operate effectively, a radio telescope must be far from civilization, which produces abundant interference from television, radio and cellphones. At 3,500 feet above sea level, Hat Creek is also surrounded by volcanic peaks containing enough magnesium to absorb any man-made radio broadcasts that otherwise might wander in.

Forster loves it, but he also has a sense of humor about it. The welcome mat outside his office depicts an alien's bulbous head and headlamp eyes. "Welcome all species," it reads.

To catch a signal from an alien race, you either have to build an enormous dish, like the 1,000-foot-diameter Arecibo facility in Puerto Rico, or connect many smaller dishes together, like New Mexico's Very Large Array, which has 27 dishes, each 82 feet across.

At Hat Creek, computers will combine data from its 350 dishes to produce, in effect, one giant telescope. "What we're doing is creating a big dish, 90 acres across," Forster said.

Even with this level of technology, the SETI scientists acknowledge it's a quixotic quest.

On a recent afternoon, senior astronomer Seth Shostak, 64, was showing a visitor around SETI's headquarters when a harried-looking white-haired man rushed by.

"This is Frank Drake," Shostak said reverentially.

The stocky, distracted man extended his meaty hand, shook quickly and sped off, a little like the White Rabbit from "Alice in Wonderland."

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