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Hat Creek Observatory

07/20/2016 11:00AM ● By Jordan Venema

Long Distance Call

August 2016
By Jordan Venema
Photo: Erin Claassen

The truth is out there—at least that’s what Mulder told Scully (and television audiences) every Friday night for the better part of a decade. While X-Files brought the search for E.T. into the living room of the average American, the scientific community already had long been pondering the show’s premise. Is the truth really out there? Well, maybe and maybe not, but despite X-Files’ cancellation, the search for E.T. continues, and is happening right now, not far from our backyard.

Since the 1980s, the nonprofit Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute has been looking for something out there, and in 2005 it expanded its operations to Hat Creek in Shasta County with the construction of 42 radio dishes known as the Allen Telescope Array (named after Microsoft co-founder and donor Paul Allen). 

Jon Richards, a SETI senior software engineer, has been working at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory since shortly after its completion in 2007, and he gets that Hollywood has influenced people’s impression of the nature of his work.

“But our organization is about hard science, not pseudoscience,” he insists.

Thanks to Jodie Foster’s “Contact” and even more exaggerated movies like “Men in Black,” it’s easy to imagine some well-guarded bunker, where little green men have been locked away, deep beneath the thrumming radio array.

Easy, but far from the truth. 

“Quite often people think I’m hiding something,” Richards says with a chuckle. “We get a lot of people that come up here and they’re actually disappointed we’re not into the whole UFO business.”

On the contrary, Hat Creek Radio Observatory is open to the public from 9am to 3pm on weekdays (obviously saving the secret stuff for the weekends), and visitors are welcome to walk among the radio dishes. There are no black suits, no memory zappers, no UFOs and no guards. If anything, what happens at Hat Creek Radio Observatory is a lot more mundane.

“It’s a lot of computer analysis,” Richards says.

“A lot of visitors don’t know what to expect,” Richards adds, “and they stumble across this place and they’ve never seen anything like it.”

Each 20-foot-diameter dish offers a visual contrast to the snow-covered peaks and foothills rising in the distance, “but when (the 42 dishes) all move together, that’s surreal,” Richards says – surreal even before you realize that each dish, when pointing upward, is able to listen for signals as far as 200 light years away.

“It all depends on the strength of the transmitter on the other end,” clarifies Richards, but between Hat Creek and whatever is out there, that’s a lot of space, and potentially a ton of signals.

“We’re just starting the search for E.T,” says Richards. “We have in our mind, because of popular culture, that there’s been a lot of looking already. So why haven’t we found anything yet? Well, there’s hardly been any effort. We’re just now getting started.”

Richards offers by analogy, “it’s like going to an ocean, stepping in the waves and dipping a glass into the water and finding no fish but then assuming there are no fish. If you look at all the statistics of how many planets there are in the galaxy, and how many stars have planets around them, it’s logical there’s life out there.”

In a sense, then, the Allen Telescope Array is a very small cup dipping into an extremely large ocean, and because the array is exploring radio signals, that translates to a lot of data entry. “We’re not listening with our ears,” explains Richards. “We’re listening with computers.”

“We’re just trying to detect a signal,” says Richards, which means sifting through endless interference from nearby satellites and other known sources. “We’re thinking that unless (a signal) comes from something really close, we wouldn’t even have the capability to decode it.” 

You could say, then, that SETI is searching for something it can’t understand, something beyond our scope, beyond our origin. Should they ever discover such a signal, says Richards, it would be passed on to larger observatories “to try and interpret it.” 

So the question remains: Is the truth out there? “Who knows,” Richards says with a chuckle. “I’m just a technical guy.” And even while Richards and other SETI scientists continue their search, visitors are welcome to stop by and see for themselves. 

“There’s usually somebody here, an introduction video you can watch, a self-guided tour,” he says. “Most people want a general conversation about how this thing works, and what’s actually out there, and what we are looking at. Even the UFO guys are interested,” he laughs. “They’ll say UFOs are already here, and I’ll say give me a location and find me a frequency.”

42231 Bidwell Road, Hat Creek

(530) 335-2364 •

Monday-Friday, 9am to 3pm