The Rough Draft

If you can't go through it. Go around it.

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.

This is as close as you can get to shoot this amazing structure with a DSLR. If I was still rocking film, I could have gotten right up and close with my old AE-1 Program.

The first of three 43 Meter Telescopes arranged in a straight line one mile long. These were the test bed for the VLA (Very Large Array) down in New Mexico of the film, “Contact,” fame.

This is a reproduction of Karl Jansky’s Antenna. Jansky was the first to confirm for Bell Labs the existence of Radio interference emanating from the Milky Way. He wanted to pursue the matter deeper but Bell being the corporation that they were felt he had found the issues they were after and reassigned him to other research. However, he did have a unit of measure named after him. The Jansky is the unit used by radio astronomers for the strength (or flux density) of radio sources (1 Jy = 10−26 W m−2 Hz−1). He passed away at 44 from a heart condition.

Lucky for us a guy named Grote Reber came along and built on Jansky’s earlier efforts. Not willing to wait, he built this reflector and receiver unit in 1937 with his own money ($37,000) and proceeded to map the Milky Way from 1938 to 1943.

This is the Horn Antenna that discovered the radio frequency of Hydrogen (21cm). As it’s the most common element in the universe, this was a big deal.

This would be a pretty cool view out of your office window.

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.

2 thoughts on “Green Bank Telescope

  1. psiko964 says:

    So, how did you get close to the antenna array? Did you all get on a hay wagon to get there?


    1. sabot03196 says:

      A very nice diesel powered coach takes you up to the base of the dish.


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