Archaeologists of the future.

That’s what Jill Tarter, astronomer and former chair at the SETI Institute, calls the team that combs the skies for a signal, something unmistakably unique, of intelligent life elsewhere.  Not only would a confirmed signal mean something or someone does indeed exists out there, but anything we can detect will have originated millions or hundreds of millions of years ago. We’re looking into that past. It’s a cosmic sized haystack and the race is on to create a bigger, more sensitive and more intelligent pitchfork.

Day-to-night Milky Way timelapse at SETI Allen Telescope Array

I had a chance to photograph a growing part of that pitchfork at the Allen Telescope Array at SETI’s Hat Creek Radio Observatory in Hat Creek California. With special arrangements through an astronomer who was also staying overnight I was literally able to camp among the dishes while I checked on my camera running a day to night timelapse over 15 hours (full length upload below).

Timelapse Shot Details:

I wanted to position myself back far enough to see a majority of the dishes as they tracked a line about 45 degrees above the horizon. Light was challenging as the shot essentially faced into direct sunset forcing a much larger total exposure shift from day time into night time. A future do-over shot could benefit from having a series of ND filters allowing the sequence to properly exposure direct sun on a cloudless sky about 3 or 4 hours prior to sunset.

The shot started about 6:45pm and concluded at 10am the next morning. My Sony a7s was the workhorse for the evening with the Rokinon 14mm 2.8.  I utilized the Timelapse+ View exposure ramping device and LR Timelapse software to post process the sequence. To keep the system powered for 15+ hours I brought a Goal Zero YETI 400 Lithium power pack and used a dummy battery replacement. Heavy, not portable at all but vital for shots like this.

milky way timelapse camera

The orange bag you see around the lens is a partially opened chemical hand warmer pack. A simple rubber band around the lens prevents timelapses from being ruined by condensation or frost as the temperatures change throughout the night and morning.

milky way timelapse 2

I’ve got a few more things to process but the night was one of the more memorable ever. Standing among the dishes with the milky way in full view under a dark dark sky was truly incredible.

A post shared by Ryan Chylinski (@ryanlapse) on

A post shared by Ryan Chylinski (@ryanlapse) on


Special thanks:

Special thanks to astronomer Jon. He was kind enough to show me around and chat science during the tour. He also made sure I wasn’t interfering with their normal operations, both physically and electrically.

SETI Allen Telescope timelapse


Now a casual add on to the post. One of the more memorable parts of my time there was chatting with Jon and a colleague and his son. They have a very accommodating bunk house for onsite astronomers guests so after setting up the shot we went down and had pasta and beers. Naturally philosophical discussions ensued.

SETI Protocol if they find something REAL (or what I remember from the discussions, I had a few beers). It’s not NASA anymore so there isn’t a single person with a title and chain of command etc etc. It’s also a public institute not Air Force so there would be no government cover up. The big concern is to make sure it’s not a hoax.

1. Wow that looks interesting, are we sure it’s not anything natural. Likely not because we have a huge database of things we’ve found over the years and that’s auto filtered but something new is always possible.

2. OK, it;’s not natural but still a lot of validation needs to happen. Maybe it’s stuff from Earth. Maybe it’s a HOAX because this is a huge likelyhood. Let’s go to a different telescope, quietly, with software we didn’t write and tech we didn’t build to validate.

3. OK it’s CHAMPAGNE time! All these people are seeing it! and now we fill in the blanks of an already prepared release to other astronomers all over the planet, which is essentially alerting the earth. Since all those peeps have different instruments maybe there is more data that they can see that we can collect. Get all the data we don’t know how long this is gonna last.

4. At the same time we call our largest donors, not because they asked us to but because they are the reason all this exists. They’re also friends and were super stoked at this point so call all the friends.

5. We can’t field the calls from all media outlets on the planet so we rely on our network of local astronomers and astrobiologists to digest the release and interpret it to the masses.

6. We DO NOT broadcast a message back to them. This is a tough one but SETI believes there should be a planet wide consensus before such things happen. A lot needs to be discussed… however now that the earth knows where a signal is coming from every person (read: goober) with a transmitter will be sending a message to that spot. A quote from someone was that this mass human noise bomb to that spot is the best representation of our state as a civilization.

7. Start making a movie. Preferably in IMAX 70mm

8. More Champagne!

SETI champagne bottle

Yes this is the actual SETI champagne bottle.