California wildfires threaten SETI radio telescope array

This summer has been a terrible wildfire season around the United States. Perhaps the hardest-hit state of all has been California, where drought and extremely dry conditions along with high winds have stoked wildfires that have destroyed homes and businesses all around the state. SETI Institute is well known for using a radio telescope array to search the galaxy for extraterrestrial life.

Last week, SETI announced the Allen Telescope Array it uses to search for extraterrestrial life is again being threatened by wildfires. The array consists of 42 radio antennas and is being threatened by the Dixie Fire. As of September 10, the fire was approximately 12 miles south of the array and had burned almost a million acres of land.

Currently, the Dixie Fire is the second-largest wildfire in California history. As of September 10, the fire was 59 percent contained. SETI confirmed in its press release that scientists and engineers who normally worked on the site had been evacuated as a precaution.

SETI wrote that it was unfortunate that environments suitable for radio telescopes are also typically places where wildfires are common. Very rural areas are chosen for radio telescopes because one of the most critical aspects for the functionality is an area that is radio quiet. The Allen Array is located in the Hat Creek Radio Observatory and was established in 1959.

It was deliberately opened in an extremely rural area with SETI saying on a typical day, there are more cattle than people. Observatory staff did contact the US Forest Service's Fire Department in an effort to prepare for the possibility of damage. The Forster service came in and tried to help mitigate the area by removing brush from near the antennas, and trees were pruned of branches hanging closer than 10 feet to the ground.