California forest fire poses danger to this radio telescope

The great Dixie Fire forest fire has raged in California since July and, on the last day 13 of September, he was about 13 km away SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array (ATA) radio telescope, located in the north of the state. In addition to threatening the 13 antennas of one of the most important tools for searching for signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life, part of the work developed at the ATA had to be suspended.

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The Dixie Fire is already the third biggest wildfire in California and the biggest in the US this year. The fire, which started in 13 June, has already consumed more than 70 square km from the north of the state. At the moment, the fire appears to have stabilized and Alex Pollak, manager of science and engineering operations at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory, where the ATA is located, said the observatory is optimistic about the fire’s containment, but still vigilant.

The view of the fire from the set of antennas (Image: Reproduction/Alex Pollak)

Forest fires are common and more intense during the North American autumn, but the fire seasons have become even more brutal due to climate change, which, among many effects, has reduced the air humidity and high temperature in some regions of the planet — ideal conditions for fire to gain such proportion.

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The observatory team was already there prepared for a possible approach of the Dixie Fire, but they didn’t imagine the fire would advance so quickly. “It was definitely scary to see how fast fire can actually move in the right weather conditions,” added Pollak. The ATA worked with the California Department of Forest Fire Protection and the Fire Department and the US Forest Service to plan a strategy in case the fire advanced on the observatory.

The teams they spent the last two weeks of August clearing bushes and removing low-hanging branches around the antennae. At that time, the observatory was not operated due to the sensitivity of the high-power communication equipment. As the antennas cannot be moved, they were repositioned to point in the opposite direction to the fire, preventing the sensors from being damaged by heat.

(Image: Reproduction/Alex Pollak)

The observatory has also devised a way to reduce activity at the site without disabling fully cryogenically cooled recipients. “If we have to turn everything off, it’s a very long process to get all the antennas working again,” said Alex Pollak. The Dixie Fire had already approached the ATA on the last 7th, but on the 9th it started to advance even more.

The team working on the ATA was reduced by half, remaining under notice evacuation facilities at the observatory and nearby regions. Pollak continues to monitor heat maps that point to any potential for the fire to increase and hopes the winds will remain calm. Even if the fire is contained, the installation will only return to normal operation in about a month.


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