Green Bank Observatory Trips

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Picture from Google Earth


In a narrow vale between two folds of earthen ridges in eastern West Virginia, a man-made structure stands nearly 150 meters tall. This is the Green Bank radio telescope, a unique resource that is the largest fully steerable radio telescope in the world, with an antenna 100 meters in diameter. The radio telescope is at the heart of what was once called the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and is now run by the Green Bank Observatory. The facility is in the middle of a radio-free zone, where cell phones go to die, since there is zero cell service in this region.


The facilities at this observatory are not just for the use of professional scientists. There is a 40' radio telescope that is available for use by school groups to learn the principles of radio astronomy, and the principles of scientific observation. I was fortunate enough to chaperone two groups of high school seniors from South Charleston High School (SCHS) on their overnight excursions to this wonderful resource. The International Baccalaureate Physics teacher at SCHS, Janet Richardson, arranged for this field trip annually. I went in the years that my sons were in her physics class.


When we reached the observatory, we had a lecture from one of the observatory staff who explained what we were going to be looking for. The 40' telescope is now fixed in place, so it allows observations of what is directly overhead as the earth rotates. This means that you can see the galaxy rotating towards you for one part of the day, and you can see the galaxy moving away from you 12 hours later. If you have a radio telescope tuned to the correct wavelength, you can observe the emissions from hydrogen gas found in our galaxy. If you remember the Doppler effect from physics, and you think about train whistles, you will remember that as the train is coming towards you, the pitch is higher. Then when the train passes you, the pitch lowers. That is the same phenomena that the radio telescope is observing. As the hydrogen gas in the galaxy moves towards you, the frequency moves up - the signal is shifted towards the blue end of the spectrum. If the gas is moving away, the signal shifts towards the red. By taking measurements around the clock, you can see the rotation of the galaxy as measured from our position on one of the outer arms of the galaxy.


The 40' radio telescope is one of the first telescopes within the quiet zone of the observatory. Once you enter the quiet zone, there are no powered vehicles except for old diesels. Spark plugs are capable of creating intense interference for the radio telescopes, so you see Checker cabs from the 1940's and 1950's available to transport people. There are some diesel vans as well that are used to move the students back and forth. You enter the quiet zone after passing by the start of the scale model of the solar system, with the inner planets grouped closely together. Then a significant gap, and finally the symbol for Jupiter appears on the side of the road. The gaps between the planets grows, and we reach our destination for observation halfway between Uranus and Neptune. The building that accompanies the 40' scope is small above ground. Once you enter the door, you descend a short flight of stairs to come to the observation room. This is a scientific instrument history display, but all of the analog dials and gauges and chart recorders are still working. I probably used similar chart recorders back in my college days in the 1970's.


The room where the measurements are taken has been used by various school groups for decades. Mementos of these groups can be found scrawled on the ceiling beams, and the wall beams, where you can see which colleges, and which high schools left their mark for future students to see. The students have been instructed on how to tune the receiver to the correct frequency bandwidth, to start the chart recorder, and to begin their observational period. They move the frequency detector manually through that range, and the chart recorder shows the response. Hydrogen gas, if it is not moving relative to the observer, will emit radiation at 1420 mHz. If it is moving towards the observer, the frequency will increase, and if moving away, the frequency will decrease. As they step through the frequency range, all of a sudden the antenna picks up the signal from hydrogen, and the chart pen goes up. The height of the response is proportional to the concentration of hydrogen being observed. The students move the frequency through the entire assigned range, and the pen comes back down to the baseline. Thus completes one set of measurements. Each group of students makes two observations over the course of their stay.


The first year I went, Janet asked me to stay with the students through all of the late night observation shifts. So while each student only got to see one measurement in the middle of the night, I got to see multiple hours of observation, and really got the sense of seeing the motion of the galaxy in real time. But once the last group of students took their measurements, I was ready to go back to the bunkhouse where the boys in the group were sleeping. The accommodations are not spartan, but the dual rows of bunk beds do not allow for any privacy. They do enable a bit of mischief, like the spray cheese some of the boys put on the hand of another sleeping student, ensuring that when they tickled his face, he would smear the cheese all over his face. I, being a sound sleeper, heard none of this mild mischief.


On my second trip to the observatory, we saw the place where conspiracy theorists (the tinfoil hat crowd) would love. We got to go inside of a room-sized Faraday cage. A Faraday cage is an enclosure that does not permit electromagnetic radiation of certain frequencies to enter or leave. This is where the computer equipment is for the observatory. Since the antennas are so sensitive to stray radiation, the computers have to be totally shielded away from the antennas. The walls, ceiling, and floor are all impregnated with a copper mesh. There are holes in the mesh, because they are only concerned with blocking radiation of certain wavelengths and the size of the holes in the mesh govern the size of waves that can escape.


For this middle-aged self-admitted science and astronomy nerd, the two days off work that I took for these trips were some of the better vacation days I ever spent. It's now been 10 years since my older son took his trip. I asked both my sons about what they remembered, but it seems that the details of the science portion has been lost to the vagaries of time. I asked Janet what she had the class do with their measurements once they returned to the classroom, and she said that their task was to get an image of the galaxy by looking at their observations over the course of a day. I cannot express my appreciation to teachers like Janet Richardson, who help to ignite the spark of curiosity in classes of young men and women. She said that in the future, they may get involved in the programs that they have to discover pulsars. It's a crowd-sourced project, where the data from observations are available, and interested volunteers can use their computers and software from the observatory to try to detect pulsars that have not yet been identified.


I noted at the first of this post that the observatory used to be known as the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. It was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). As part of the ongoing disinvestment in science that began years ago, the NSF no longer provides 95% of the funds for the facility. Up until late in 2017, it was even feasible that the NSF would call for the demolition of the telescope. But since that time, a compromise was reached that enabled the observatory to stand as a self-sustaining organization. The Green Bank Observatory now is partnering with universities, like West Virginia University, and is involved with several multi-year projects including Project Breakthrough Listen, which is surveying the million closest stars to us and looking for signs of intelligent life. But like all such facilities, the needs for funds continues. If you would like to support the science programs of this unique facility that seeks to expand our knowledge of our origins, here's the link to get involved:


Originally posted on my blog


Dave Volek Added Feb 13, 2018 - 12:03pm
Nice piece.
In a truly libertarian society, such projects would be dependent on the good will of generous rich people. There would be a lot fewer of these kinds of projects, meaning fewer people would develop an interest or career in radio astronomy. While we can argue that the world really does not need that many people taking hydrogen readings from deep space (because there is no profit in it), such knowledge does indirectly help more practical sciences. 
opher goodwin Added Feb 13, 2018 - 12:26pm
What an experience! Particularly for those kids.
I visited the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a guest in 1980. That was an amazing experience too. I still have the information pack they gave me with the incredible photographs of the planets. Jupiter in full colour.
Tubularsock Added Feb 13, 2018 - 1:55pm
What an opportunity for both you and the kids/students you were with. It is opportunities such as these that interest people in science and a desire to know more.
Now the question is how many light years would it take for you to travel in space so as to see this experience approach you again?
Even A Broken Clock Added Feb 13, 2018 - 7:06pm
Dave - the partnership to explore the nearby stars for evidence of intelligent life is sponsored by a Russian oligarch. Talk about ironic.
Opher and Tube - thanks for the responses. It was a unique opportunity but one that is available for may in the US if they open their minds and wallets to it. I realized it was something that very few have the opportunity to participate in. Tube, who knows what infinity minus infinity equals (kind of like nothing from nothing leaves nothing).
Even A Broken Clock Added Feb 13, 2018 - 7:09pm
Joanne - I kept thinking that this observatory could do a swap with the vehicles you see in Havana. Surely some of these are diesel. Seriously, the problem is that if you have an electric ignition system with a spark plug, that creates the interference. Even new diesels with sophisticated electronics create too much interference. They would need to create totally new "old" diesels that have no electronics in order to update their fleet. It is something to see, and if you have the opportunity. please go there.
Jeff Jackson Added Feb 13, 2018 - 8:04pm
Nice article. I'm not sure if you ever heard this, but one of the Ohio State radio telescopes, in I think it was the 1980s or so, detected a radio signal that seemed to indicate life out there. The signal came at the end of the day, and as the earth was rotating, they moved out of the range of the signal, as they could not stop the earth and focus on that particular signal. This might be just another urban myth, but I know that I heard it somewhere, probably on one of those TV shows that are trying to prove life on another planet. Maybe one of those telescopes will detect some thing someday.
Jeff Jackson Added Feb 13, 2018 - 8:07pm
Here it is: The most famous example was the so-called "Wow signal" — a strong radio signal picked up by astronomers at Ohio State University in 1977. One of the astronomers was so enthusiastic about the signal’s strength that he wrote the word "Wow!" on a computer printout of the data. As exciting as that signal was, though, it has yet to be detected again.
opher goodwin Added Feb 14, 2018 - 3:48am
EABC - Aaah - but everything from nothing is rather special. We're living that one.
Even A Broken Clock Added Feb 14, 2018 - 11:08am
Jeff - yes, I am familiar with the Wow signal. One of the more interesting hypotheses about that signal is that it showed an interstellar spaceships push beam. One of the ways that you can power up a ship is by beaming a very strong electromagnetic energy (think laser), and that such beams can result in energy leakage, transforming the beam to other forms of radiation. The constant acceleration from such a beam would be one way to power a vessel to a significant fraction of light speed. We just happened to be in the right place to pick up some of the energy leakage for a brief period. If that explanation pans out, then you would not expect to ever receive that signal again.
But if such methods of interstellar transportation are real, then we might see other signals of the same sort from other sectors of the galaxy.
Dave Volek Added Feb 14, 2018 - 11:21am
Risking that this article dovetails into something you didn't intend, I would that such a project beholden to a Russian oligarch poses problems. What does this fellow really want?
There are a few thinkers on WB who use the example of before FDR, poor people were taken care of by charities sponsored by rich people. The government stayed out the business of social assistance. All well and good, but many poor people in the West were starving in the Depression. 
Katharine Otto Added Feb 14, 2018 - 9:00pm
Nice article and more or less understandable.  I'm glad to see Pluto is still respected enough to be part of the solar system.  Thanks for sharing.
Even A Broken Clock Added Feb 15, 2018 - 10:06am
Dave, yes, I was aware that the project listed is being funded by a Russian oligarch. That's the thing about cash - it is fungible. The origin of cash can be bad, or from an evil source, but the cash can be spent on good projects. As to what this person really wants by sponsoring such a project, who knows? I don't think it is something that will lead to world domination, so I'm copacetic with the expenditure.
I'm not certain what you are referring to on the before FDR / after FDR comment. My own belief is that our government does need to fund scientific research and at a rate that is higher than what we are doing now. The ROI on these efforts over time is tremendous. But that doesn't correspond to social assistance and public works efforts that came from the FDR administration.
Anyway, thanks for your comment.
Even A Broken Clock Added Feb 15, 2018 - 10:10am
Katharine - I'm glad that you found it understandable. As I've been writing some posts on science, I am completely aware that I must provide a background for those who are not as literate in science as I may be. Most of these posts I run past my wife who is not scientifically trained, but this one went through unchecked. It is difficult to write about red-shift and blue-shift and make sense in under 1500 words.
I've walked the entire solar system pathway. It's a long way to Pluto, but you get a great view of the big scope by the time you get there.
Thomas Napers Added Feb 16, 2018 - 3:57am
Thanks for such a good description of such an interesting place I never heard of before.  As for funding such a place, I agree completely with the current format.  If someone values the observatory, whether it be a university or some corporation, they should pay to use it.  At the very least, the cost of operating the facility should be that of West Virginia or charitable donations and not the other 49 states. 
If I ever travel to West Virginia, I’ll be sure to put the Green Bank Observatory on the list. 
Even A Broken Clock Added Feb 16, 2018 - 11:48am
Thomas - it ain't easy to get to. Simplest way to get there is to get off I-64 at the White Sulfur Springs exit, the one where the Greenbrier Resort is. Then head up WV92 about 40 miles and you finally will see the telescope as you round a bend.
Neil Lock Added Feb 16, 2018 - 12:48pm
Broken Clock: A very fine article indeed.
I passed through White Sulphur Springs (on a bicycle!) in June 1989. That's probably the closest I'll get to the telescope. But what you say seems to reflect the disdain for science that the US government (and others) seemed to acquire around that time. A year later, when I was living in Chicago, I went on a walk around part of what had been the Argonne National Laboratory. It was all overgrown.
Stone-Eater Added Feb 17, 2018 - 5:18am
Very informative thanks Mr. Watch :)
Mark Hunter Added Feb 17, 2018 - 2:49pm
Fantastic. I'd love to go visit that myself, someday.
Even A Broken Clock Added Feb 19, 2018 - 3:28pm
Neil - about that time was when we decided we couldn't afford the superconducting supercollider in Texas. Even in the heart of earmark country, they abandoned the work already completed. I don't remember what the capabilities of that accelerator were, but it probably would have been comparable to CERN. Oh well, you get what you pay for.
Even A Broken Clock Added Feb 19, 2018 - 3:28pm
Mark and Stone - thanks for the comments.

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