Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Walking the Universe

Green Bank is an out-of-this-world place! This secluded valley in the mountains of West Virginia was selected by the government in the late 1950s as the site for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), where they could “listen” with their huge “ears” to radio waves from across the universe.

I had visited Green Bank as a youngster during the ‘60s, before I could fully comprehend the science behind these giant dishes. However, this kid was mesmerized by what I saw that day, and I still remember the black and white souvenir booklet I got that day, and kept for many years after my visit. I knew I wanted to return some day, but it is a bit out of the way. I saw the antennas from a distance a few years back, because the bicycling trip I took on the Greenbrier River Trail (http://inquisineer.blogspot.com/2011/06/greenbrier-river-trail-grt-great-trip.html) started in the nearby town of Cass, but I didn’t have time to stop and visit that day.

Recently, Anna had some business to attend to near Green Bank, so we arranged for her to drop me off at NRAO. Arriving at 2:30 PM, we agreed to meet in the parking lot at 4:00 PM, giving me an hour and a half to check things out. Unfortunately, I found out that the fancy new Visitor Center was closed that day, so I would not be able to see the exhibits inside. However, an employee gave me a sheet of paper outlining a personal walking tour of the grounds, and said I could follow the map and read the interpretive signs, as long as my cell phone was powered off. These antennas are so sensitive that any electronic devices could cause interference. In fact, the only vehicles allowed within the gate beyond the visitor center are diesel powered, because their compression ignited engines don’t require electrical spark plugs. [I guess that is why I saw a 30-some year old diesel VW Rabbit Pickup there—I had not seen one of those in years!]

The road through the NRAO compound runs for almost two miles, passing a variety of telescopes that have been used over the years. The main road is also used to create a scale model of our solar system to give visitors a sense of its size. Near the start, our sun is represented by an 18 inch sphere, with Mercury, Venus, Earth (the size of a pea), and Mars coming in short succession. Jupiter and the other planets stretch out across the rest of the road, until you reach Pluto at the largest telescope near the end (it must be cold that far from the sun!).

So on this beautiful spring day, I was walking alone, step by step through the signs describing the planets as well as the radio telescopes, with no noise but the breeze in the nearby trees. The juxtaposition of all this cutting edge technology next to the West Virginia woods was intriguing. To think that these dishes were picking up signals from across the universe is amazing! Someday, we might detect radio evidence of life elsewhere in the universe—NRAO was the site of the first Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project. I wanted to take pictures, but could not do so without turning on my cell phone (if only I still had my Kodak Pocket Instamatic camera).

I made it to the end and then hurried my pace on the way back. Not only do I use my phone as a camera, but on this trip I had left my wrist watch at home, relying instead on my phone to tell me the time. I was trying to estimate elapsed time in my head, so I would be back in the parking lot to meet Anna at our appointed hour. There was no way for us to call or text each other about meeting up—besides the limitation on electrical devices near the antennas, there is no cell service whatsoever in the Green Bank vicinity. The government has declared a radio-free space around the entire area, so cell phone communications are non-existent.

Fortunately, the inner clock inside my brain had “guess-timated” correctly, as I arrived at Anna’s car precisely at 4:00 PM. I love it when that happens! I had a great time on my 90 minute walk contemplating the cosmos at Green Bank. Now I need to return someday to see the exhibits inside the Green Bank Visitor Center. There is some concern that efforts to cut the federal budget might result in the closure of the NRAO, so I better not wait as long between visits as I did the last time!

While I didn't take any pictures, here is one from NRAO that shows the largest telescope and the mountains behind it, and a tour bus in the foreground.

No comments:

Post a Comment