Metal in the Meadow
Despite the beautiful landscape and the shining dishes of the millimeter-wave radio telescope at Hat Creek, the scene is rather unremarkable – a drilling rig in a sage-covered field. It could be drilling a new water-well for the local rancher or an exploratory oil well for a transnational company. In fact, the rig’s rhythmic pounding and the rising plume of dust signify the first moments of construction of the Allen Telescope Array.
|Arecibo. World’s largest dish, radio telescope. Puerto Rico.|
The Allen Telescope Array will consist of 350 individual 20-foot antennas linked to form the equivalent of a single large antenna. When fully operational in 2005, the Allen Telescope Array will have more collecting area than the newly completed Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, and better resolution than the venerable Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico that has been so important to the SETI Institute.
This innovative new telescope – a joint project between the SETI Institute and the University of California Berkeley’s Radio Astronomy Lab (RAL) – is funded through prototype construction by visionary philanthropists Paul G. Allen and Nathan P. Myhrvold.
The Allen Telescope Array will be the "new kid in town" at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory in northern California, where the University of California currently operates an array called BIMA (Berkeley-Illinois-Maryland Array) that observes at millimeter-wavelengths. Because BIMA will perform better at a higher elevation site, it will migrate south in the next few years to mate with an array operated by Caltech, leaving the Allen Telescope Array alone in the lava and sage-covered valley just north of Mount Lassen National Park.
|Allen Telescope Array (ATA)|
The development of the Allen Telescope Array is marked by many innovations crafted with the express purpose of building a world-class state-of-the-art astronomical facility at a fraction of the price of existing radio telescopes.
Some examples of these innovations are:
|Earth as seen by the departing Voyager spacecraft: a tiny, pale blue dot.|
Although the physical structure of the Allen Telescope Array is dominated by the "metal in the meadow" described above, what truly makes it distinctive is that it will be one of the first digital radio telescopes to allow astronomers to look at completely different frequencies at the same time, and to observe completely different parts of the sky concurrently. This means that the Allen Telescope Array is not just one instrument, but in effect, many.
The capability allowed by this flexibility makes the partnership between the SETI Institute and the Radio Astronomy Lab particularly beneficial; while the RAL embarks on its ambitious observing programs of astronomical sources, the SETI Institute will concurrently use the full extent of the array to search our galactic neighborhood for that quiet tone with its thunderous implications.
The Allen Telescope Array allows everyone to not only get their cake and eat it too, but also to pick out their favorite flavors and toppings as well. In fact, each person gets the whole cake and not just a small, unsatisfying sliver. And finding the distant whine from a galactic neighbor would certainly be a very nice cherry on top.
Related Web Pages
Allen Telescope Array Capabilities
The Astrophysical Journal (March 2003, v. 145,pp. 181-198): "Target Selection for SETI: I. A Catalog of Nearby Habitable Stellar Systems" (PDF)
How To Find An Extrasolar Planet
SIM (NASA’s Space Interferometry Mission
GAIA – The Galactic Census Project
FAME: Full-sky Astrometric Mapping Explorer
Extrasolar Giant Planet Detection with Next Generation Instruments (M. Turnbull, et al)