The Giant Endangered Cosmic Ear Inside America's Cell Phone Black Hole

In 1956, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) was formed in Green Bank, West Virginia, and became the hotbed of radio astronomy in the United States.

Sep 27 2012, 5:09pm

In the early 1930s, physicist Karl Jansky published stunning results of a study in which he detected radio waves emanating from the center of the Milky Way. Jansky’s work confirmed a suspicion long held by astrophysicists that the universe could be observed by measuring electromagnetic frequencies outside of the range of visible light. By eliminating limitations of traditional telescopes — like the difficulty of grinding perfect glass lenses, and avoiding peering through our dusty, murky atmosphere — radio telescopes promised astronomers deeper views into space than seen before.

In 1956, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) was formed in Green Bank, West Virginia, and became the hotbed of radio astronomy in the United States. The Green Bank site was chosen partially because of one major drawback of radio astronomy: The radio signals recorded by telescopes are so faint that any outside electromagnetic (EM) emissions can ruin data. Green Bank, being rural and mountainous, offered a perfect location to shield sensitive telescopes from any interference.

To combat what EM sources remained, the NRAO had the FCC create the National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ) shortly before the first telescope in Green Bank went online. Within the 13,000 square miles of land that make up the NRQZ, radio emissions are extremely restricted, and limited mostly to radio systems for emergency personnel.

The thing is, in the ‘50s, there weren’t that many sources of EM emissions to worry about. Green Bank is sparsely populated, and the occasional radio station and poorly shielded home electrical wiring posed most of the threats. Flash forward to 2012, and EM emitters are everywhere you look: Your phone, wi-fi, car, toys, and heck, even radio stations are still around. Just about everything we work with these days transmits radio waves of some sort, and all of them would make the research done at the NRAO difficult, if not impossible.

Eleven years ago, the NRAO completed the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT), the largest steerable radio telescope in the world. Sure, the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico (you know, the one in Goldeneye) may be bigger, but it doesn’t move. After having seen the 16 million pound GBT tilt and turn and gawk at the sky, I have to say it’s one of the most awesome sights on Earth.

When Motherboard paid a visit to the telescope this summer, we felt its presence long before we arrived. Even for someone who grew up outside a city, it was quite a shock to leave New York and spend a few days in a region where cell phones and wi-fi are, by law, prohibited. But upon seeing the incredible work being done at the NRAO, being disconnected from the digital umbilical cord becomes a rather trivial inconvenience. (Also worth noting: the quiet zone also protects the antennas and receivers of the U.S. Navy Information Operations Command, in nearby Sugar Grove, which has long been a crucial – and classified – link in America’s massive electronic intelligence gathering systems.)

A time lapse of the telescope, the largest moving object on Earth

However amazing the telescope and its bucolic radio-free surrounds are, it’s the sights beyond our little planet that the GBT is all about, and it hasn’t disappointed. Data from the GBT has been used to test some of Einstein’s theories, discover new molecules in space, and find evidence of the building blocks of life and of the origins of galaxies. With 6,600 hours of observation time a year, the GBT produces massive amounts of data on the makeup of space, and any researchers with reason to use the data are welcome to do so.

But with the National Science Foundation strapped for cash like most other science-minded government agencies, the NRAO’s funding is threatened. In August of this year, the Astronomy Portfolio Review, a committee appointed by the NSF, recommended that the GBT be defunded over the next five years. Researchers, along with locals and West Virginia congressmen, are fighting the decision, which puts the nearly $100 million telescope at risk. Unless they succeed, America’s giant dish will go silent.