To find real solitude, you have to go out of range. But every year that’s harder to do, as America’s off-the-grid places disappear.
By Pagan Kennedy | Photographs by Damon Winter
Contributing Opinion Writer
June 21, 2019
GREEN BANK, W.Va. — A few weeks ago, I drove down a back road in West Virginia and into a parallel reality. Sometime after I passed Spruce Mountain, my phone lost service — and I knew it would remain comatose for the next few days. When I spun the dial on the car radio, static roared out of every channel. I had entered the National Radio Quiet Zone, 13,000 square miles of mountainous terrain with few cell towers or other transmitters.
I was headed toward Green Bank, a town that adheres to the strictest ban on technology in the United States. The residents do without not only cellphones but also Wi-Fi, microwave ovens and any other devices that generate electromagnetic signals.
The ban exists to protect the Green Bank Observatory, a cluster of radio telescopes in a mountain valley. Conventional telescopes are like superpowered eyes. The instruments at Green Bank are more like superhuman ears — they can tune into frequencies from the lowest to the highest ends of the spectrum. The telescopes are powerful enough to detect the death throes of a star, but also terribly vulnerable to our loud world. Even a short-circuiting electric toothbrush could blot out the whisper of the Big Bang.
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On May 30, 2019, the Russian RadioAstron satellite — the farthest element of an Earth-to-space radio-telescope system — ended its service. During its mission, RadioAstron helped to capture some of astronomy’s highest-resolution images and studied previously the extreme physics of astronomical objects by working with telescopes around the world, including the National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Telescope in Green Bank, W.Va.
Launched in July 2011, RadioAstron used the 140 Foot (43 Meter) Telescope at the Green Bank Observatory as one of only two sites to download data for the Russian-made satellite.
RadioAstron excited the international scientific community for the unique science it enabled. Its high resolution was achieved through a technique known as “Very Long Baseline Interferometry,” which linked various radio antennas on Earth with the orbiting RadioAstron satellite to create a single virtual telescope that extended into space.
RadioAstron’s achievements included observing a black hole jet in the center of the giant galaxy NGC 1275 (also known as radio source Perseus A, or 3C 84) revealing the jet structure 10 times closer to the black hole than previously known; the discovery of galactic water masers as small as the Sun, the smallest maser sources ever observed; and the detection of low frequency interference fringes on long baselines, giving a new understanding of the ionized interstellar medium.
The RadioAstron project was led by the Astro Space Center of the Lebedev Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Lavochkin Scientific and Production Association under a contract with the Russian Federal Space Agency, in collaboration with partner organizations in Russia and other countries. The Green Bank Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.
When RadioAstron was launched and up to October 2016, the telescopes at Green Bank were part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which signed the initial contract to collaborate on this mission. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.
Nikolai Kardashev, Lebedev Physical Institute, firstname.lastname@example.org
Jill Malusky, Public Relations Specialist, Green Bank Observatory, 304-456-2236, email@example.com
Charles E. Blue, Public Information Officer, National Radio Astronomy Observatory, 434-296-0314, firstname.lastname@example.org