If we're going to contact aliens within the next 20 years, as many scientists believe, we can't risk the work being waylaid by terrestrial happenings. Yet SETI -- which stands for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence -- is suffering this week because of wildfires raging north of Sacramento, Calif.
SETI posted an image Tuesday on its Twitter feed of fires that reached the vicinity of its Allen Telescope Array at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory. The fires were so close, within a mile or two, that the alien-hunters had to shut their systems down and briefly evacuate the facility.
"We can't listen when all that is down," Seth Shostak, senior astronomer and director of SETI Research, told CNN.
The telescopes, which exist in part thanks to donations from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, are dedicated to "cutting-edge astronomical research and a simultaneous search for signals of intelligent, extraterrestrial origin."
The so-called Eiler Fire, KRCR-TV reports, is only 20 percent contained. The Bald Fire, which also threatens the telescopes, was said to be 30 percent contained yesterday morning. The US Forest Service currently reports that the Eiler Fire is still affecting 31,000 acres, while the Bald Fire is spread over 39,000 acres.
You might imagine that, if aliens are looking down upon us and are, as many hope, smarter than us, they might spray some liquid from the skies, so that the alien-hunters can contact them and say thank you.
Fortunately, the scientists have now been allowed back to the facility and await signals from outer space. In an update Tuesday, SETI said the array has power and telephones but no network.
"The computers are being brought back up, but so far the staff has not been able to communicate with the antennas," SETI wrote. "Attempts to get everything back up and running will be underway [Wednesday] and Thursday."