Stanford’s Favorite Dish

Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

Photography by Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

Standing atop the foothills near Junipero Serra Boulevard, the Dish knows how to strike a pose. It has become one of Stanford’s most popular landmarks, but few know its colorful history.

Cold War Beginnings

In 1958, Stanford scientists submitted a proposal to the Department of Defense to build a large radio telescope to detect enemy planes and the effects of nuclear blasts on the upper atmosphere. “It is expected that this large, geometrical structure, used for important scientific research, would become widely known as a Stanford University landmark,” the proposal noted. The DOD liked the idea and commissioned the “Big Dish.” Construction was finished in 1961.

Out of This World

Almost immediately after its construction, the Dish’s purpose changed — and not for the last time. The Dish’s first major assignment was to measure the electron content along the path of the 1963 total solar eclipse. It was also used to research the outermost layer of Earth’s atmosphere, including meteor tails and solar wind currents. Soon, the Dish began transmitting signals to NASA’s Pioneer space probes as they orbited the sun. During this time, the Dish also shot a beam to NASA’s Mariner probe, which was orbiting Venus. Researchers then helped map Venus’s atmosphere by examining how the beam changed as it passed through.

When Stanford Almost Lost the Dish

NASA soon began using higher frequencies for its communications than the Dish could accommodate, and radio interference from electronic devices impaired the Dish’s hearing. By the late 1970s, according to the Stanford Daily, the Dish was “an elegant monument and occasionally a late-night jungle gym,” but little more. In fact, electrical engineering professor Von R. Eshleman, who oversaw the Dish’s research, speculated in 1983 that Stanford might sell the Dish or even move it to the North Pole, where the Stanford Research Institute was conducting experiments.

Rescue Ops

Months before Eshleman’s comments, the Dish had a momentary reprieve from irrelevance, saving a British satellite from extinction. OSCAR 9 had malfunctioned, blaring its transmitters so loud that it could not receive instructions. The Dish released a signal powerful enough to turn off the satellite’s transmitters so it could follow orders again.

The Dish Is Dead

On March 18, 1994, the Dish crashed to the ground. Stanford workers were lowering the structure’s 83-foot, 13,000-pound tripod (which includes its central antenna) when its cables snapped. The Dish spent “four months with its nose in the ground,” according to the Daily, but was ultimately repaired and improved.

It’s Still a Thing

Today, the Dish’s transmitting range, tracking speed and ability to extract weak signals from noise keep it in operation. It is still used for a wide array of research, as well as for satellite calibrations and spacecraft command.

‘Walk the Dish’

Nowadays, when someone says “the Dish,” he or she is likely to be referring to the hiking trails that wind through the Foothills near the radio telescope. Each year, an estimated 500,000 visitors walk or run along the 3.5-mile path.