Let the games begin!

If I were to try and explain last week, I would have way more pages than anyone wants to read. Not to mention, it was intense enough that much of it bled together and I still have to sort and settle all the information and experiences. As a run-down to get a structured idea of our days, I’ve got a list below, then I’ll go into specific stories.  Essentially we took a 5 hour drive up north to Hat Creek Radio Observatory with the Allen Telescope Array and stayed in the dorms up there to do various science projects related to SETI research.

Day 1: ATA

    • Morning lectures by Jill Tarter and Gerry Harp
        • Introduction to radiation and the Allen Telescope Array
        • Radioastronomy in more technical detail
        • The Radio Camera (Gerry Harp)
    • ATA Lab: observing overhead satellite signal
    • Card games with Gerry Harp and Oana

Day 2: ATA

    • Morning lectures by Jill Tarter and Gerry Harp
        • Signals and feasible searches
        • LNSD Interferometry and ATA application of Young’s Double Slit Experiment
    • ATA Lab:
    • Evening movie?

Day 3: Cinder Cone and Lassen Volcanic National Park

    • Climbed Cinder Cone
    • Watched Contact with Jill Tarter

Day 4: Extremophiles and Sulfur Works

  • Birthday Celebration for Kathryn

Day 5: Helping with Science Camp and Milkshakes


The ATA is the Allen Telescope Array at Hat Creek Radio Observatory, a collection of 42 dishes, one day 350 if there is ever funding to finish the array. While some of the large telescopes like Arecibo and the new one the Chinese are building may seem flashier, having multiple small dishes actually optimizing everything from cost to resolution to area of sky. With the current 42 6.1m diameter dishes, the result is equivalent to a 30 m dish. If all 350 get funded, the entire array will be equivalent to a 114 m dish. In particular I like Jill Tarter’s wish, which can also be seen on her TED talk: “I wish that you would empower Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company.” I highly recommend her TED talk if you haven’t seen it:

Another part of the lectures I found particularly engaging were the few messages we have sent out with Voyager 1 &2 and Pioneer 10 & 11. If you haven’t checked it out, wiki it, because it’s really a nice shift in figuring out how to relay information, particularly the one that uses pulsars with relative lengths and binary periods (since pulsars slow over time) imbedded in the lengths to establish both a time and place.

The first lab used one dish for each of the three groups to track across the sky and across a satellite in order to demonstrate both the noise that results and to provide us with an idea of what receiving a signal looks like in reference to the background. It also goes through some of the necessary calculations and manipulations.

The second lab is a demonstration of radio telescope’s version of Young’s double slit experiment, but using antennas instead of slits. The following images display a signal from tracking a satellite, with
a hatched pattern across a square area of sky. The first image starts with using the data from only two antennas, corresponding to the double slit from Young’s experiment, with each image incorporating an
additional antenna’s data up to 15 then jumping to 18 for the last image. Increasing the number of antennas, adding constructive and destructive interference, reduces noise and results in a clean final
data image. The last slide shows the graphs of channels vs. amplitude, multiplying the x coordinate with itself and the y coordinate with the itself to remove the complex aspect of the data. Unfortunately, our images go saved as slide backgrounds so the quality is just from pulling screen-shots of smaller images.

Another cool moment was getting to watch Contact with Jill Tarter. Hearing some of the background from her own life as well as comments about locations such as Arecibo or helping with filming really fleshed out the experience into something I will never forget.

Day 3 was our geology day and was really more of a hiking day. Well, hike from hell. Ok, dramatic exaggeration, but getting up Cinder Cone took some determination – down two steps for every three and at a nice little angle of anger. We got to do a fun round table chat at the end of the day going over what some of us knew about various planetary geology aspects. The fourth day working with extremophiles I found very fun. I wish we had enough time to let more students go down to do the sampling from one of the low PH pools, but it was still cool to see. Abbey got to go down so she lent me her camera…and I promptly took at least 100 photos. Friday was our free day, and everyone went to a gorgeous waterfall. I stayed behind since I wanted to spend more time at the array. As it turned out, a group of about 35 science campers were scheduled to come in. That was my favorite day. I ended up writing a kind of journal entry that day, so I’m just going to share that here – I think it gets my enthusiasm for the day across!


I am incredibly happy; it has been a very good day. The other interns took advantage of our day off to hike some beautiful areas and see a waterfall while I choose to stay at the ATA and help Jill Tarter and Gerry Harp. It was a great chance and experience to get more one-on-one interaction with two astounding people and hear their stories. There was also a science camp group, with grade levels from 4th to 12th grade, that came by for a couple hours that we talked to and showed around the Array. I really, really enjoy bringing the things I love and find fascinating in the sciences to people and kids, getting them thinking and excited and curious. Gerry even let me help do many of the explanation for the array and we did several demonstrations of how the telescope worked and why. Since many of the kids were pretty young, explaining some of this stuff, including the electromagnetic spectrum and how we pick up various wavelengths, was tricky, but Gerry used a genius idea. Getting the kids to do high, long-period jumps, then fast, quick jumps he was able to draw a great parallel for the kids to grasp the idea of the same thing having different wavelengths and how that influenced frequency and energy. Being able to have something to see and do to extend to something the kids couldn’t see really helped in explaining the inner workings of the antennas. Some of the kids had various learning disabilities and some were super smart: one of the later quipped up saying that if we transmit the signal from one telescope to the control center that it would mess up any antennas in the way. Darn kid was like 11 years old! So we said “Yeah! So how would you get around that?” and he answered with “cables, maybe underground,” which was exactly right! I was very impressed and excited with that. We had split the 35 or so students into two groups and while the second group went out and got Jill and Gerry to explain the array to them, I talked with the first group that was inside recovering from the heat. I got to talk about all sorts of things related to the telescope, SETI, planetary science, and robotics, and a few of the kids were into it enough to not care about being tired. One of the questions I asked them was if they knew what the most volcanically active body in the solar system was, and the kid who got it was one who had aspergers and ADD both. The fact that we were able to reach, interact and teach such a spectrum of children and ages was incredibly rewarding, and I truly hope that one or two of them walks away with something that they will remember, think of with fascination, and start asking questions about. The fact that such a program is in danger of ending due to lack of funding horrifies me – it is these sorts of camps more than school, that teaches kids the breadth and depth of the world around us, teaches them how to start building and asking questions. It is an environment that is incredibly difficult to duplicate in classrooms because of lack of access to these very facilities and people, particularly when tests and classroom teaching requirements must be met instead of being able to push this learning and exploration. I loved this day, and while I definitely want to contribute to wealth of knowledge the human race is continually building, this just reasserted that I also want to share that passion and encourage that.


After that, we drove back Saturday, then I drove three hours further to spend some time with family for Sunday. Before I knew it, it was Monday and a VERY full week was hitting me at full blast!



At the ATA!!

Lab work using the ATA!

Expanding on Young’s Double Slit experiment, we are able to remove noise on a signal by adding more and more telescopes.


Up Cinder Cone with Oana Marcu at Lassen Volcanic Park!

“Cosmic Red” Wine as a thank you gift to Jill Tarter and Gerry Harp

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