National Geographic: Life in the Quiet Zone

The barrage of noise and distractions that are all but inescapable in most American communities is refreshingly absent in this unassuming hamlet, located in the wooded hills of Pocahontas County, four hours west of Washington, D.C. Here, no cell phones chirp or jingle, and local kids aren’t glued to the glowing screens of their mobile devices. Older residents roll down their car windows to greet each other and leave their front doors unlocked.

But Green Bank, population 143, isn’t a technological backwater. On the contrary, it is the proud home of one of the marvels of the space age: the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, or GBT for short. Towering nearly 500 feet above its wide, green valley, with a dish large enough to cradle a football field, the GBT is the world’s biggest fully steerable radio telescope—and one of the largest movable objects anywhere on land. Locals jokingly refer to it as the Great Big Thing.

The GBT and other radio telescopes enable astronomers to detect and study objects in space that give off little visible light but emit naturally occurring radio waves—objects such as pulsars, gas clouds, and distant galaxies.

Source: National Geographic. Read more on their site.

NPR: Enter the Quiet Zone

There are no physical signs you’ve entered the National Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000-square-mile area that covers the eastern half of West Virginia. But the silence gives you a signal. Somewhere around the Virginia-West Virginia state line, the periodic buzzes and pings of our smartphones stopped.

“Zero [service]. Searching,” said photographer John Poole, who traveled with me to the zone.

Almost every radio station disappeared, too, except forAllegheny Mountain Radio, which broadcasts at a low enough frequency to avoid being banned.

“We didn’t realize the rest of the world was getting connected and staying connected constantly, via phones and computers and all that,” said radio host Caleb Diller, who grew up in Pocahontas County, W.Va. “So we were kinda back in time a little bit. We hadn’t progressed to that.”

The county still hasn’t progressed to constant connectivity. That’s because it sits within a zone designed to protect a sophisticated radio telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory from interference. The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope.

Radio telescopes work by tracking and reading the energy waves that come from stars or gases, but they have to be located in sparsely populated areas to avoid electromagnetic interference.

The Green Bank Telescope looks like a giant dish. It’s as tall as the Washington Monument and large enough to fit 2 acres of land in it.

“It’s a huge collecting area and it’s what allows us to see these incredibly small energies that we’re trying to study,” says Karen O’Neil, who oversees the site. “The types of energies we look at are less than the energy of a single snowflake falling on the earth.”

Source: NPR, All Tech Considered. Get the transcript here.

Vice: Save The Last Great Telescope

The Green Bank Telescope (GBT) is the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope and the world’s largest land-based movable structure. It is part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) site at Green Bank, West Virginia, USA. NRAO is located in the National Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000 mile zone where all radio transmissions are either limited or banned outright, to help the telescope function properly.

With the growing popularity of radio-array telescopes, the GBT may end up being the last single-dish telescope of its kind built in the world. Motherboard traveled to this remote part of West Virginia to investigate one of the last remaining vestiges of single dish big science and the people who are fighting for it.

Source: Vice, Spaced Out – The Silent Dish