The cell phone service in Lassen County is spotty, but for a group of scientists, it makes for perfect conditions to listen for aliens.
Just below Burney Mountain, east of Redding, lies the Hat Creek Observatory, a science lab with an array of satellite dishes that scan the galaxy for radio signals. John Richards is the lead observer for the non-profit group Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence [SETI].
“We are listening for radio signals that may come from aliens,” Richards said.
The Hat Creek Observatory was built by astronomers from UC Berkley in the 1960's. In the early 2000's, big companies like Dell and Microsoft dumped a bunch of money into the facility and installed 42 of these radios receiving dishes. Today, a private organization by the name of SRI pays the bills and the non-profit group SETI uses it to scan the skies.
“The reason we have so many receiving dishes is because it’s cheaper to maintain and we can combine the multiple dishes into one large dish," Richards said.
The combination of dishes is called an array. They were built in the foothills of the Lassen National Forest for a reason.
"We don't get a lot of the radio frequency interference here because they are far away and these mountains block them," Richards said.
Without radio interference on earth, the receiver dishes can listen for signals in solar systems that are light years away.
"We use something called the Doppler effect," Richards said.
The search process is complicated, but basically, the dishes are programed to listen to a star for 90 seconds. If it picks up a radio signal, it alerts scientists.
"Every time that has happened, which has been about a dozen times, we ruled it out," Richards said, adding researchers have been scanning the skies for over a decade and they haven’t heard any aliens yet. “We are just at the beginning stages of looking.”
Now, you may think a decade of searching is a long time, but you have to remember, there is a lot of stars in the sky.
"Hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy and we are only looking at this little, little, little section at a time," Richards said, noting it could take decades or even hundreds of years of searching before they find anything.
Searching for alien radio signals is clearly a daunting task, but researchers at the Hat Creek Observatory know that.
“Somebody has to look,” Richards said.
You can visit the Hat Creek Observatory for free, self-guided tours from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday - Friday.