Can We Modernize the National Radio Quiet Zone?

A new Request for Information (RFI) has been issued by the National Science Foundation (NSF), taking first steps to develop effective strategies for improving communications in the National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ). 

The Green Bank Observatory campus. Photo credit Jay Young.

Established in 1958, the 13,000 square mile NRQZ was created to protect radio astronomy scientific operations at the country’s first national radio astronomy observatory, now the Green Bank Observatory (GBO), and national security operations at Sugar Grove Naval Station, now the National Security Agency’s (NSA) Sugar Grove Research Station. The rules of the NRQZ were defined based on the challenges of radio interference in the 1950s and 1960s. However, communications technology has transformed dramatically in the 60 years since the NRQZ was established, and its present day effectiveness, and community impact, is being challenged. 

The Green Bank Telescope (GBT), the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope, is a powerful and sensitive tool for scientists to reveal the secrets of the Universe, from the formation of black holes to the detection of gravitational waves. The GBT is experiencing growing impact from airborne and space-based transmissions, including new satellite technology providing cellular and broadband connectivity from low Earth orbit, which are not explicitly regulated by the NRQZ. At the same time, there are growing community needs for continuity of emergency communication, and cellular and broadband services, which presently have coverage gaps due to the region’s mountainous topography, low rural population density, tower siting, and transmission power limits set by the NRQZ. 

The NSF has issued this Request for Information to identify ways to preserve Federal facility operations while simultaneously enhancing regional safety and vitality for present and future generations. Interested organizations will identify effective strategies, and costs, to improve emergency and civil telecommunications while protecting and enhancing Federal facility operations. Recommendations will consider the immediate time period (1 year), informed by medium-term (5 years) and long-term (10-30 years) perspectives. Immediate recommended improvements will target emergency communications coverage in Pendleton County and Pocahontas County, West Virginia. 

Recent headlines have shared that the NRQZ and the Pocahontas County Commission updated their agreement on radio frequency transmissions for emergency services. Specialists from the NRQZ, NSF, NSA, and public representatives for Pendleton County recently convened at the Green Bank Observatory to continue discussions around possible solutions.

“All agencies involved in the NRQZ want to provide solutions. We look forward to the in-depth research and recommendations this study will provide to help us improve the effectiveness of the NRQZ for everyone,” shares Ashley Vanderley,  Senior Advisor for Facilities in the NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences. 

To learn more about Green Bank Observatory education, science, and research opportunities visit our website.

The Green Bank Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation and is operated by Associated Universities, Inc.