Video Killed the Radio Star: Students Visit the National Radio Astronomy Observatory

04240014Nestled in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia is a 3.3 square mile region called Green Bank. It is not a county or a town or even a village; it is a “census-designated place” with a population of 143 people as of the 2010 census. There isn’t much in Green Bank. There is no major residential area, no town center or local governing body; there are barely even radio waves. Here at Villanova, there are radio waves everywhere. They come from your cell phone, your microwave, even your iPod. They’re everywhere. They’re even coming down on us from the deepest reaches of space, black holes and galaxies. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank wishes to look at those objects in space, but just like you wouldn’t see anything through a telescope with a flashlight pointed down the barrel, Radio Astronomy needs radio silence. This puts the observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia in the middle of the National Radio Quiet Zone.

The National Radio Quiet Zone is a 13,000 square mile rectangle that covers portions of West Virginia and Virginia (and a tiny bit of Maryland). It was established in 1958 to protect the sensitive radio telescopes used at the US Navy Information Operations Command at Sugar Grove and at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank from interference. It was chosen for the low population density; the entire region only has around two thousand residents today. The closer you get to either Green Bank or Sugar Grove, the more strictly the radio wave restrictions are enforced. For example, the NRAO drives a van in the area around their Green Bank facility measuring the radio emissions from houses. If a house seems to be using an appliance that is strong enough to interfere with research data, even something like a microwave, they have the authority to tell residents to turn it off. Wi-Fi is strictly prohibited. Outside of these areas though, the restrictions are loosened somewhat because it is impossible to reduce radio interference to zero, when even turning on a gas car can emit interference. The scientists at Green Bank drive old diesel engine trucks because they don’t create interference, but they can’t impose that lifestyle on everyone.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a rare place. It was there that Frank Drake effectively began SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) and came up with his famous equation that predicts the likelihood of the existence of life elsewhere in the universe. In more recent history, the observatory is the location of the Green Bank Telescope which is the largest fully steerable radio telescope in the world. The GBT is in high demand and maintains a busy schedule of observations performed remotely by astronomers in the US and abroad. And this one-of-a-kind combination of scientific achievement and West Virginia wilderness is the destination visited by the Villanova Astronomical Society every fall. A ragtag group of young astronomers and people who are just there for the stargazing all gather to learn everything that the facilities at Green Bank have to offer.
The education component of the NRAO facility at Green Bank is vital to its survival. Radio astronomy is still relevant but it doesn’t have the glamour of the high resolution photos taken by the Hubble telescope or the search for planets around other stars in the Kepler mission. Radio astronomy data is essentially endless lines on paper and on your computer screen describing the radiation emitted by stars and other space objects. These lines can be fascinating and relevant… to a very narrow audience. The NRAO site at Green Bank is in constant danger of losing funding so they do their best to appeal to the public. They have established a visitors center and astronomy museum and they offer tours of the entire grounds to further that aim.
There are numerous radio telescopes on the property, the largest and most current being the GBT. Others telescopes include the 140-Foot Telescope previously used by MIT and the 100-Foot Telescope currently enlisted into the SkyNet program. There is even one little telescope (40 feet in diameter) on the property that is no longer in use for research so it is now exclusively for student use, including visitors like the aforementioned constellation enthusiasts who have no background in the science of stars and space. Visitors to the Green Bank facility are taught how to direct the telescope and gather data on an old school printout from a roll of grid paper. The printout records two lines of data, one that shows the radio waves collected by the dish and the other that marks the passage of time. And students have the opportunity to take down this research on their own, aiming the telescope at any deep space radio source: from black holes to the remains of supernovas, gather the data, and get the satisfaction of tearing the printout from the machine and bringing it home to hang in their dorm room.
But for the Villanova Astronomical Society, the draw of Green Bank isn’t just the facilities. Green Bank offers an escape from the hectic lives of the Villanova undergraduates. Away from cell service, Wi-Fi, and the oppressive lights of Philadelphia, Green Bank is a place where small groups of friends and enthusiasts enjoy the field of Astronomy. For one weekend every fall, a small group of Villanovans lie down in a field in the Appalachian Mountains staring at the most breathtaking night sky they’ve ever seen.
This article would not have been possible without the help of Evan Kullberg ’15

By Abigail Demke ’15

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