Tech history: the story behind Stanford’s satellite dish hiking trail in Palo Alto

The scoop on the past and present of the famous radio telescope that is still active today

Whether you are a hiking aficionado or not, you can’t miss the Stanford Dish as you wind your way around the Stanford foothills. One of the most recognized landmarks of the lower San Francisco Peninsula, it looms large on your left-hand side as you exit I-280 South on to Alpine Road when driving down from the city. Perched on a hilltop, like an Eiffel Tower of our own, right in the heart of Silicon Valley.

The image of the Dish in Palo Alto is quite popular, but beyond a few snippets on Wikipedia, its history and purpose aren’t really widely known. Like most others out there, I had always thought of it as the Stanford Dish trail, a local park for outdoor enthusiasts, stroller-pushing parents and casual hikers. It wasn’t until I started working at SRI International a few months ago that I discovered to my pleasant surprise that the so-called Dish at Stanford had relatively little to do with the university at all. In fact, beyond some small project collaboration and its location on land owned by Stanford, a decision jointly made in the late fifties by the university and SRI (known then as the Stanford Research Institute), the Dish was primarily run by SRI and its origins aren’t closely tied with the university.

The Stanford radio telescope was built for the U.S. government in 1961 by none other than SRI. The institute proposed, designed, built, operated and has maintained it continuously since then. Its huge 150-foot antenna, designed by SRI engineers, Neil Stafford and David Wray, is one of four built by SRI for the government in the early 1960s. Back then, George Durfey was responsible for operations.

A video about the making of the SRI Dish

Curious to understand the story further, I tapped into the memory storehouse of Don Nielson, who I loosely refer to as the SRI resident historian. According to him, the Dish first went into operation in 1963.

“The Dish was created to address a couple of important needs during the Cold War,” Don said. “One was to investigate the ability of our defense radars to work in the event of a nuclear attack on the U.S. Could they perform their essential role in protecting us? The second was as an intelligence gathering tool that enabled our government to learn the characteristics of large radars operating within the Soviet Union.”

But as Don pointed out, both reasons seem somewhat absurd given that Stanford University has no proximal advantage to either of those uses!

A copy of the memo that sparked the development of the Stanford Dish

That said, in the early 1960s there was one reliable and sizable satellite that could help the Dish reach those targets… the moon!

The moon turns out to be a very practical reflector if it is in the right location,” Don said.

Alas, life has a tricky way of unfolding outside of the original plan. So, because of how events unfolded, the Dish thankfully never had to realize its first purpose –sending signals through an ionosphere disturbed by a nuclear explosion.

However, Don did affirm that the Dish has been subsequently used at times for ionospheric research.

That the second purpose, on the other hand, was realized when the Dish intercepted powerful Soviet radars well enough to detail their signal characteristics. This investigation was carried out not by SRI, however, but by a local defense contractor.

“Beyond those early uses, the utility of the Dish has led to its use for a variety of other missions, most all of which had to do with satellite communication and telemetry, as well as satellite maintenance,” Don said.

He added that the Dish was a principal transmitting and receiving facility for the Pioneer satellites, the first to have heliocentric orbits; for Apollo satellites that at some point left our solar system; and for receiving signals from the Mariner probe around Venus to help characterize its atmosphere.

The November 1982 issue of The SRI Journal features a luring headline: “SRI Volunteers Use ‘Big Dish’ to Save Scientific Space Satellite.” A team of scientists led by Robert Leonard, Director of the SRI Radio Physics Lab at the time, used the Dish to rescue a NASA launched space satellite that was stuck in orbit. The Dish’s antenna beamed a radio signal powerful enough to command the satellite to correct a malfunction that had been blocking regular ground signals for more than five months.

Here is a great picture from that issue of The SRI Journal.

The good news is that nearly 60 years after it was built, the Dish is still being used for new missions in support of scientific CubeSat experiments. Jeffrey Casper, Manager of the Dish in the SRI Applied Physics lab says, “The Dish was recently used to support NASA’s Mars Insight mission and its associated Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats, which flew along with Insight to Mars. This was in the May-July 2018 time frame.”

Now if hiking is more your thing than the in-depth workings of radio telescopes, then by all means the Dish is a worthy outdoor landmark on the Peninsula, as it’s more than half a century old. The Dish has a 3.5-mile trail circumambulating it that climbs the hills, the Stanford Dish trail offers a little bit of history, along with spectacular views of San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, the East Bay and the coastal mountains.

Already serving many purposes, we at SRI decided to give the Dish one more. This time with a different spin — all puns intended.

As part of the new team focusing on the organization’s communication efforts, our purpose in launching this blog, really is to throw light on the incredible technologies pioneered by SRI. Like this one.

So, as we pondered the most appropriate title for this blog, we couldn’t think of a better way to give you the scoop on all-things-SRI than through this metaphoric play on words. We are excited to live up to the name and share the lowdown on the many great technologies of the future that are being developed at SRI.

To quote Neil Stafford who said of a satellite tracking project once, “if we can’t use the Dish to do these other things, then what good is it?!”

To learn more about the history of the Stanford Dish, check out the video below:

For people who want to make the world a safer, healthier and more productive place through innovation. Created and curated by the team at SRI International.

Reenita Malhotra Hora

Written by

The Dish

The Dish

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