Surprising Facts about the Green Bank Observatory

The Green Bank Observatory campus viewed from above, featuring many historic and active instruments, including the Green Bank Telescope, upper left with the backdrop of the Monongahela National Forest. Photo credit Jay Young.

The sprawling 2,700-acre campus has been in Green Bank as long as many residents of Pocahontas county, West Virginia can remember. But what do you really know about this place?

The Green Bank Observatory (formerly the National Radio Astronomy Observatory/NRAO) was established in 2017 when it was separated from the NRAO at that time, under the direction of the federal government and National Science Foundation.

The Observatory is owned by federal government by the National Science Foundation. Two-thirds of Observatory funding come from the federal government through the National Science Foundation, while remaining funding comes from contracts with universities and businesses, including West Virginia University.

The Observatory is the second largest employer in Pocahontas County, and a major attraction for regional tourism, alongside Snowshow Mountain ski resort and the Monongahela National Forest. It is recognized by state leaders as an economic driver for the state of West Virginia. In September of this year the Astro 2020 Decadal Survey, the preeminent forecaster of American astronomy, recognized the Green Bank Telescope as a vital part of the future of scientific research in the United States.

But what about the “land of no wifi?” This narrative about our area is much more complex than click-bait headlines will have you believe. The National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ) was established by the Federal Communications Commission in 1958 to minimize possible harmful interference to NRAO and additional federal facilities in Sugar Grove, West Virginia. The NRQZ encompasses approximately 13,000 square miles near the state border between Virginia and West Virginia. In this area, the NRQZ works with radio transmitters to minimize interference to the Observatory and federal facilities in Sugar Grove. Cell phone providers, and Wi-Fi, that exist within this greater area must be carefully planned for – and they do legally exist.

The West Virginia Radio Astronomy Zoning Act, a state law, restricts electronic transmissions of the Observatory on its 2,700-acre campus (a 2-mile radius) and the surrounding 10-mile radius. This law sets parameters for what electronic transmitters can be used here, and this much smaller area is where the transmission of Wi-Fi and cell service are restricted. However, again, this story is not so simple. The Observatory works with law enforcement and emergency medical services in the area to ensure that their communications are not inhibited. The Observatory also works with the Green Bank Middle School and local businesses to come up with creative solutions for ensuring internet connectivity.

The Observatory needs access to high quality internet service providers to function, like all Pocahontas county residents. The Observatory often suffers from breaks in service of telephone and internet like our friends and neighbors, which besides being frustrating, can have negative impacts on the Observatory’s ability to complete its work.

The Observatory is a part of advocacy at the county level to lobby for new high quality internet service providers, and funding to improve the infrastructure of internet in our county. Observatory staff, many of whom are residents of Pocahontas County, are involved in many local activities, from the fire and rescue service to STEM education and student clubs with Pocahontas County Schools. This spring, staff coordinated student radio contact with an astronaut aboard the International Space Station, and this event was broadcasted online, reaching over 26,000 individuals.

Observatory staff working with Green Bank students to contact the international space station. Watch this broadcast here.

Local residents and members of the press or public with questions or ideas about the Observatory are welcome to contact our staff to talk about their concerns. We are your neighbors, and we want you to feel comfortable to talk with us about your needs. You can begin this conversation by sending an email to ude.o1716981707arn@y1716981707ksula1716981707mj1716981707 or by calling 304-460-5608.