Flashing lights in the sky out in the Desert

Sometime in the late 90s a friend and I were driving West across a timeless expanse of desert in Eastern Oregon. We had been driving the less-used roads and enjoying the scenery all day. By late afternoon it would not be much of an exageration to say we were both almost in a trance.
The Sun was getting low when we started seeing flashes of light in the sky just above the horizon ahead of us. They appeared to come points from all over a wide left/right region of space. I felt the hairs go up on the back of my neck as we wondered what we were seeing. Our sense of time was already distorted just from driving through so much desert country all day so I have no idea how long it took us, but we eventually decided that maybe we were seeing Sunlight glinting off of high voltage lines of some very large power grid of some kind. We were too far away to make any more sense of it than that and the road we were on angled off instead of taking us straight towards it. Once we were at the wrong angle to see the Sunlight reflecting off of it, we had no way to figure out where this structure was located. There are not all that many paved roads in the SouthEastern quarter of Oregon.

People who are not from the Western Mountain and High Desert States usually do not realize the vastness, the miles and miles of open country we have out here. Lake County in Oregon for example, where this radar installation is located, is nearly 8000 square miles, with a population averaging one person per square mile. Lake county is one of three counties which combine to make up the entire SouthEast quarter of the state. Their combined size is 8136 + 10134 + 9887 or approx 28 thousand sq mi with populations 7473 + 6,888 + 31,247 or approx 45 thousand folks. Overall, in this quarter of the state, the population is less than 2 people per square mile. If you gather a few hundred of those folks into each of several small communities, the population density for the rest of the land drops to the point that the phrase population density becomes an oxymoron. Compare this to the entire state of Massachusetts, which is smaller than any one of these three Oregon counties with 7,838 square miles of land area and a population of about 6.5 million. Massachusetts averages more than 650 people per square mile.

My point is that much of the Eastern Oregon high desert is so vast and remote that you can hide a 3 mile long antenna right out in the open without people finding it.

It might have been days or weeks later that I connected what we had seen with an article I had seen in the newspaper some years before. The article was about a special radar system that was being built somewhere in Oregon. If my memory is at all reliable now, a dozen years later, then the article had described this radar system as being able to detect incoming planes or missiles which were still out of sight beyond the curvature of the Earth.

Eventually I found some information on the internet. There was not as much online about this backscatter radar installation back then. The following two pictures will allow you to imagine the kinds of reflections of Sunlight one might see, as we did, as we approached this structure from a distance of 10 or 15 miles, with the Sun getting low in the sky behind it. It was pretty eerie to see all those flashes of light without being able to see anything at all of what the light was reflecting from.

This regular state map has a red star at the location of the Christmas Valley Radar site. But if you want to get a feel for the kind of terrain one finds in this part of the state, go into Google Maps, enter Latitude 41.735523 and longitude -121.165586 and pick Satellite view. You will see that the Christmas Valley area has some irrigated farms, but in any direction but West, the land is quite desolate. Beautiful too, but not many buildings or roads or people.

I have been able to get more perspectives of the radar site using Google maps and Google Earth.

In this satellite view of the installation, you can see a metric in the bottom right corner, showing that each of the three sections of this antenna array is over a mile wide.

Another page with more technical details about this project is available here.
From the main Navigation bar, select "Human Interest" then mouse over "Cold War" then click on "Backscatter HF Radar":


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