The Green Bank Radio Telescope is the crown jewel of the Silent - WVVA TV Bluefield Beckley WV News, Weather and Sports

The Green Bank Radio Telescope is the crown jewel of the Silent City

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GREEN BANK, WEST VIRGINIA - The Robert C. Byrd Radio Telescope has a mission so fanciful, you might consider it science fiction, but it is most assuredly science fact.

And it exemplifies a massive feat of engineering.

"It is one of the largest moving land objects on earth," according to Green Bank Observatory business manager Michael Holstine. He should know. He lent his engineering expertise to help build the thing.

The GBT, as it's known around the observatory campus, is exquisitely sensitive. 

Says Holstine, "Your cellphone on standby on Mars would be the brightest radio object to us in the sky."

In other words, it can read the celestial signatures coming from deep space that are all but invisible to the naked eye.

Principal scientist at Green Bank Dr. Jay Lockman puts it this way: "Just like there are things out in the universe that give off light, like the sun, there are things out in the universe that give off radio waves."

The radio astronomers here have their ears to the heavens, eavesdropping on the universe. It's a lot of science, and maybe also a little magic. But that magic comes at a price.

Green Bank, West Virginia, lies in a federally-designated Quiet Zone in Pocahontas County. Thirteen-thousand square miles of wilderness. With few roads and more trees than people.

One afternoon, we caught Debbie Birely pricing pepper rolls at Trent's General Store in nearby Arbovale. It first opened in 1953 and hasn't changed much over the years. Even the wooden floors are original. Debbie says it's where you go for gas and gossip.

"We're the first to hear about everything," she says proudly. "I consider myself the local news channel."

Debbie's a fairly recent transplant, having moved to the area five years ago. She learned pretty quickly that the work at the observatory is hush-hush, but not in the way you might think.

"Obviously, the lack of a cell phone and wireless equipment--electronics. You do have to sacrifice that, but to me that's not a big deal."

In other words, this is the land of "no." Or no, no and hell no.

Longtime resident Charley Sheets knows this full well.

"If I wanted to call you on my cell phone in Bluefield, I couldn't do it from here," he says.

Spend enough time with Charley and you might be invited to look over his classic car collection, mostly Oldsmobiles, because his dad was a dealer in Green Bank a long time ago.

Like most residents here, he has to use a landline when calling from home, and has the overhead wires to prove it. And, of course, you can always walk to a neighbor's house.

"Once you live here," he says, you appreciate the quietness."

The mandatory radio silence extends to other aspects of life here. A microwave oven in heavy shielding. Or, get this. When the Dollar store was first built, Green Bank engineers discovered the automatic door opener was a problem. Their solution? Get another door opener.

And gasoline engines, with their pesky spark plugs, can cause the instrumentation to go haywire. So when we were invited to climb aboard the GBT, we drove to the site in a diesel pickup.

Tours of the site are by invitation, and occur only on maintenance days, when the huge telescope is turned off. That's when the apparatus is safe to explore.

"You can drive down to the telescope," says Holstine, and get close to it and it looks much more substantial, but only until you get on that beast, do you really understand the full scale."

You want scale? An entire football stadium--not just the field--can fit comfortably inside the dish. 

To make the ascent, you first climb into a small elevator that takes you on a clamorous ride to the first observation level, about 300 feet up. And it's there you are directly under the dish. A symphony of girders that strike out in all directions.

Then you walk along a steel grate forbiddingly open at your feet to a second elevator. This one operates on a diagonal and is not for the faint of heart. Visitors sometimes freeze in place.

It's often up to Holstine to talk them down.

"You spend some time with them and hopefully you can pry their hands off the handrail."

He says it happened to a famous astronomer, who will remain anonymous and likely never will make the trip again.

By now, you're out on another platform, about 450 feet up. With a clear view of the Alleghenies in the distance, and a forested notch where West Virginia and Virginia meet. Impressive, even for a reporter with his heart in his throat.

And all around us, smaller telescopes that look for all the world like tiny steel mushrooms.

The difference is that they can't rotate the way the GBT does. And from the control room, sealed tight against any interference, we were treated to a breath-taking demonstration.

Amanda, at the controls, pressed a few buttons and--voila--the huge telescope starts rotating. At first, it's almost imperceptible. But then measured against the mountainous backdrop, you can easily see the dish begin to take on a sideways aspect. We suddenly view it in profile.

Keep in mind the rotating telescope weighs 17 million pounds and turns almost with the ease of a roulette wheel. And maybe that analogy is apt.

Because this project is a gamble: that with patience, and under the right circumstances, we might finally detect intelligent life in a galaxy far, far away.

After all, like a sign in GBT headquarters suggests, "The universe is listening to us."

Here, in the Silent City.


 

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