No, the Stanford Dish Isn't Listening for Aliens — but It Was Built to Spy on Russia

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A satellite dish points up into the blue sky.
The Dish, aka the Stanford Dish, is a radio antenna in the Stanford foothills. It's also an iconic local landmark, and the centerpiece of a popular hiking path on the Stanford campus. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

On the western edge of Stanford University's sprawling, 8,180-acre campus stands a giant satellite dish pointed at the sky. It's known simply as "The Dish," and it stands out among Stanford's rolling hills — green or yellow, depending on the season.

"Who built The Dish?" asked former Menlo Park resident Jim Timmins. He also wanted to know, "When was it built? For what purpose? Is it still in service? If it's not in service, when was it taken out of service?"

Timmins retired from a career in finance four years ago and moved to a dairy farm outside of Toronto, Canada. But he still listens to Bay Curious, and he still dreams about The Dish — not just the satellite dish, but the sprawling park and walking paths surrounding the massive saucer that thousands of people visit each year.

An elevated view of green hills dotted with oak trees and the San Francisco Bay in the distance.
An elevated view, from the mezzanine of the Stanford Dish, of surrounding green hills dotted with oak trees, and the San Francisco Bay in the distance. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

"It’s just an incredible view," Timmins explained. "I can remember it like it was yesterday. To the west, is the Pacific Ocean. To the south, I could see past San Jose. To the east, I could see well into the Central Valley. And to the north, I could see all the way past San Francisco and the Golden Gate in to Marin."

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Now, this reporter has never seen quite so far as Timmins says he did when he started running around The Dish, as a Stanford student, back in 1979. But I do spot San Jose and San Francisco on clear days, and I love the way I can watch the landscape change over the seasons.

A close up of oak acorns still on the tree.
Oak trees sprout leaves — and acorns — in the spring. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

Clutches of deer and turkeys roam the grounds in the spring. Coyotes and tarantulas, too, in the late summer.

Red-tailed hawks coast on thermals, hunting for chirping ground squirrels in the grass below all year. I've spotted egrets, woodpeckers and hummingbirds. I've never seen a mountain lion, but signs warn me they're out there as well.

Even though I — and some 600,000 visitors a year — think of The Dish as a public park, it's actually owned by Stanford. "The Dish is primarily used for academic research purposes, but in addition to that, it's used for habitat restoration conservation efforts," said Jovan Solis, who works with Stanford Land, Buildings & Real Estate.

A young male turkey shows his tail on a paved hiking path.
A young male turkey eyes a KQED reporter warily on the hiking path at the Stanford Dish. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

Look closely and you'll spot all kinds of habitat restoration projects Stanford students and professors are working on. There are efforts to encourage native grasses and plants, like the sticky monkey flower and California poppies, as well as critters, like the California tiger salamander. There also are two massive, solar-powered water storage facilities and a wildfire alert system. 

The dish about the Dish at the Dish

The Dish is a parabolic antenna radio telescope pointed at the heavens. It's basically a giant, U-shaped dish, 150 feet from edge to edge, that sends and receives signals from space. And who's the wizard of this Oz? It's Stephen Muther, a senior research engineer with SRI International, a nonprofit scientific research institute started by Stanford in 1946.

He explained that The Dish was built in the early 1960s as a Cold War response to Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite launched into space. Sputnik, launched by the Soviet Union in 1957, was about the size and shape of a beach ball, and it sent the U.S. into a national panic that was eventually channeled into a space program of our own.

A man standing several flights of stairs up a giant satellite dish smiles at the view.
Stephen Muther, a senior research engineer at SRI International, takes in the view from the mezzanine level of his office. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

"We were ... listening to signals from [the Soviet Union] as they bounced off of the moon, using the moon as a reflector," Muther said. The Dish was basically a giant spying device. (You can watch silent footage of its construction here.)

To this day, scientists and amateur radio enthusiasts like to demonstrate the process, for research purposes and for fun. The Dish concentrates radio waves into a narrow beam of energy, most of which gets absorbed by the moon. The rest bounces back our way, a round trip that takes about 2.5 seconds.

"We've sent Morse code signals to the moon and back," Muther said. "Testing, one, two, three. Hello. Hello. That kind of thing."

A 1960s era control panel features knobs and meters.
A 1960s-era control panel inside the observation desk of The Dish. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

For years, I presumed The Dish was designed to listen for aliens. "No," said Muther. It turns out that the airwaves above the hills on the Stanford campus are filled with all sorts of extraneous sounds, "from cellphones to broadcast stations, radio-dispatched anything. It's a very noisy environment," Muther said.

"You really want to be out in the middle of nowhere [to listen for signs of extraterrestrial life]," he continued. "We mostly talk to spacecraft [i.e., human-made satellites] closer to home."

Muther also offered me a tour of the observation deck at ground level of The Dish, his day-to-day office. It looks like a science classroom circa 1960, albeit one with a great view.

A sign is posted next to neat rows of flowers planted where grass has been cleared.
A sign tells passersby about efforts to more fully establish the sticky monkey flower, a favorite of local hummingbirds, on the grounds of the Stanford Dish. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

"All these buttons here are the same ones you see on the control consoles in the old Apollo Mission Control," he said. "It's the same hardware, came from the same era, and it's still in use today. We still have spare parts for it."

The Dish sits on a circular rail, rotating upon command from these very controls inside the observation deck. It also can be tilted up or to the side, as desired. "This whole structure rotates — the building and everything," Muther said.

I asked Muther what the red "panic" button in the center of the main console is used for. "Well, sometimes the computer doesn't do what you think it should be doing, and sends you off in the wrong direction really fast, and you've got to put a stop to it," he said.

A tarantula stands atop dry grass.
A tarantula eyes a KQED reporter along the hiking trail at the Stanford Dish. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

A chain-link fence keeps most nosy humans away from the satellite dish, but there is a lot of wildlife in the area. Birds, in particular, like to perch on The Dish and watch the goings-on below.

Why not see for yourself what draws the crowds? No dogs or bicycles are allowed, but The Dish is open seven days a week, typically sunup to sundown.

A woman with sunglasses and a striped sunhat smiles in the foreground. A satellite dish sits on the hills behind her.
KQED's Rachael Myrow has struggled to take a selfie that includes her and The Dish while delivering a proper sense of scale. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

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