BIG PINE, Calif — A mysterious field full of what appears to be satellite dishes are searching the skies in the Eastern Sierra. The Owens Valley Radio Observatory is just outside of Bishop, California in the little town of Big Pine, and the satellite dishes are actually radio telescopes and antennas.
The Owens Valley Radio Observatory [OVRO] is one of the largest university-operated radio observatories in the world. Locals call it "Big Ears" because they think researchers like Travis Powell are listening for something, but that is not the case.
"No we are not listening. We don't put on head phones and listen to what the telescope picks up," says Powell, who also confirmed researchers are not listening for aliens.
There are a number of different research projects going on at OVRO, home to more than a dozen radio telescopes and even more antennas. Powell is part of a team that is doing something called CO mapping. "CO mapping, which stands for 'carbon monoxide mapping array pathfinder,'" says Powell.
The radio telescopes Travis is using are sort of like a carbon monoxide time machines.
"By looking at carbon monoxide at times and places in the universe, we can get an idea how star formation occurred at those times," he said.
A lot of what goes on here is highly technical and not that visual. These telescope dishes record radio waves that are processed in complex computers, then converted into data that only scientists can read.
The telescopes were built in the Owens Valley because it has clear skies and is far away from radio electrical interference. Essentially, it’s in the middle of nowhere.
"This observatory is in a high dry environment to avoid that atmosphere as much as possible," says Powell.
The telescopes come in all shapes and sizes and search all sorts of things. The largest dish is 40-meters, and it studies black holes. A series of medium dishes locate Fast Radio Bursts and small ground level antenna looking devices study something referred to as red shifts.
If the scientific jargon confuses you and you want to know more, the Owens Valley Radio Observatory is open to the public, and if you take a tour you can take as many pictures and ask as many questions as you want.
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