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WTF

How wildfires almost destroyed one of our best chances of finding aliens

Just wait till next year.

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The search for intelligent life in the universe is one that is supposed to transcend our terrestrial problems — but it turns out it is hard to look for alien life far out in the cosmos when your best tools for finding them are literally burning down.

The tool in question is the 42-antenna Allen Telescope Array (ATA) at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory in Hat Creek, California. In mid-September, the record-breaking Dixie Fire came perilously close to the alien-hunting array — scorching the earth a mere 8 miles away. Though the Dixie Fire has since been contained and extinguished without harming the array, just wait till next year.

INVERSE is counting down the 20 science moments that made us say “WTF” in 2021. This is #17. See the full list here.

The discovery — The revelation here is a little atypical, but bear with us. The Dixie Fire revealed a clear and present danger: With each new fire, the peril to true discovery increases — and especially to efforts like this one, which relies on many extremely large and expensive dishes spread across a plain in the middle of an area increasingly affected by wildfires. In this case, the Allen Telescope Array has 42 dish-like antennas. Technically, each can work alone, but they are most powerful when they work as one unified telescope.

Climate change is not slowing and wildfire season is getting longer and more intense. The prospect of another record-breaking fire season in this region in 2022 isn’t just a possibility — it is a likelihood.

A few dishes in the Allen Telescope Array. SETI Institute

Here’s what happened — The deadly Dixie Fire torched almost 3,900 square kilometers of northern California. The flames spanned five counties, claimed at least 1,329 buildings, and took the life of at least one firefighter.

The wildfire started, we think, around July 13. By July 23, it was California’s largest wildfire in all of 2021. By August 6, it went on record as the state’s largest single wildfire in recorded history. The inferno’s area exceeded the size of Rhode Island.

“The situation is not getting better.”

On August 5, Lassen Volcanic National Park closed because the Dixie Fire had encroached on the eastern side of the reserve —  not only our search for aliens but also natural reserves are imperiled by these fires.

Ultimately, the fire blazed from July 13 to October 25 and burnt more than 963,000 acres of land. The Dixie Fire was a tragedy for Earth — but in threatening the array, it showed how perilous our planetary situation truly is.

Why it matters — The ATA is the first telescope array of its kind, built entirely for the search of extraterrestrial intelligence. It is the thing, scientists at SETI believe, that will help pinpoint signs of intelligent life far out in the universe by catching the faint radio and other signals an intelligent alien lifeform might send out into the cosmos — just as we do here on Earth. The SETI Institute operates the ATA and evacuated its on-site scientists during the fire.

The ATA was completed in 2008 as part of a group of related programs searching for extraterrestrial technosignatures. The telescopes, named after their then-funder Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft), are capable of looking at several individual targets at a time or working in tandem as one large telescope.

What’s next — This wasn’t the first time wildfire threatened this research center. In August 2014, a wildfire came within a mere two miles from the antennae — close enough to heat them up. The SETI Institute’s science and engineering operations manager, Alex Pollak, says in a press statement that because of climate change, “the entire west coast (is) more susceptible to fire. The situation is not getting better.”

It would be an ironic (and very human) twist if the thing that held back the search for life in the cosmos was the terrible effects of climate change on a more telluric scale.

INVERSE is counting down the 20 science moments that made us say “WTF” in 2021. This is #17. Read the original story.

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