I’m working my way down through West Virginia on US 92. Ironically I’m listening to the soundtrack to, “Oblivion,” when I come round a bend and up looms the shape of a huge Radio Telescope. I quickly punch it up on the GPS. I’ve just stumbled across the Green Bank Telescope of the NRAO. So this taps into a couple of deep seated things for me. It’s represents science and space – deep space at that and it’s also tied into big mechanical things made of metal which always turns my crank.
I turned into the complex and took the tour, which is a very reasonable $6 and lucky for me started on the hour in five minutes.
Like most of these types of tours it starts with a video orientation. Unlike most of these orientations I actually learned stuff.
First off, the NRAO sits in a ten square mile radio quiet zone within an even larger one hundred and fifty square mile zone. What does that mean? Well on the site, within one mile of the Dish complex, there are no gasoline powered vehicles, diesel only because of the radio noise generated by the spark plugs and their vehicle alternator. No wireless routers within the ten mile zone and within the bigger zone any electrical equipment that can generate noise has to be signed off on by the NRAO. No digital cameras within a three mile boundary. The dish will pick up the interference. They even have a radio direction finder truck for tracking down persistent emissions. And last but by no means least all of the receiving equipment is bathed in liquid Helium to keep the atomic motion of the components at a minimum. Something our guide demonstrated with a pail of liquid Nitrogen and a balloon. He was just a bit too free sloshing this super cooled liquid around for my liking but it’s not my place to comment on their health and safety just because it makes me nervous.
One other thing I learned was that as we secure new levels of bandwidth to enable our smart phones and tablets and stuff, that section of the radio spectrum for from Earth observation is closed off to the NRAO as even with advanced filters, it becomes too hard to filter the signal from the noise. I know there’s been talk of building an antenna on the backside of the moon, shielded from Earth’s output. We can only hope this actually happens.
I’m always impressed by places where real science is happening and real research is being done to answer the big questions of physics. This facility helped to confirm the existence of a super massive Black Hole at the center of our Galaxy powering the forces that keep the whole spiraling mess in check. The NRAO continues to be a research test bed for new ways to learn about our universe. It was one of the highlights of the day. Which was good because the next day, the wheels were really going to fall off.