Listening to the universe from rural West Virginia

Listening to the universe from rural West Virginia

In late July, cosmologist Stephen Hawking and Yuri Milner announced a 10-year, $100 million initiative to gather data from the 1 million stars closest to earth and listen for signs of intelligent life from the 100 closest galaxies.

Unveiled at the Royal Society in London, the program will consist of two main pieces. The first, the Breakthrough Listen program, will use the radio Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, or GBT, and the Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia to gather data. It will be 50 times more sensitive than any survey conducted by Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute before it, cover 10 times the amount of sky of previous programs, scan five times as much radio spectrum 100 times faster and search for laser transmissions, according to a report in ExtremeTech. Later the group will provide details on a second program, Breakthrough Message, for creating digital messages representing humanity and Earth.

The National Science Foundation’s GBT is part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory site in Green Bank, W.Va. It  is the world's biggest fully steerable radio telescope -- and making it one of the largest movable objects anywhere on land --  and it can be controlled from anywhere in the world, giving international researchers greater access to the telescope. Hundreds of scientists a year from all over the world use the GBT for a wide range of projects, such as research on pulsars, comets, molecular clouds and cosmic microwaves.

As a radio-based telescope, GBT allows researchers to see astronomical phenomena often invisible or hidden in other portions of the electromagnetic spectrum, such as the dust-shrouded center of the Milky Way or the chemical precursors of DNA floating in space. It can also trace the location, density and motion of hydrogen gas, which constitutes three-fourths of ordinary matter in the universe.

Because GBT is based on radio waves, it requires protection from man-made radio interference, so it is located within the National Radio Quiet Zone -- a 1,300 square mile area in the states of West Virginia, Virginia and a tiny part of Maryland. NRQZ severely restricts radio transmissions to reduce interference.

Residents of Green Bank must use cable and satellite for television. Within a 20 mile radius of GBT, Wi-Fi routers and cellphone usage is restricted. Gameboys, iPods, cordless telephones, radios and gasoline powered vehicles are banned on the site.  Similarly, microwave ovens are confined to shielded rooms or enclosures. Exceptions are made for emergency service (police, fire and ambulance) radios and repeaters for broadcasts from NOAA Weather Radio, which transmits official warnings, watches, forecasts and other hazard information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The GBT control room houses the equipment needed to precisely guide the 100-meter Green Bank Telescope and the instruments that receive the astronomical data coming in from the telescope along fiber optic cables. Because the computer equipment in the control room could be a huge source of radio interference to the telescope it has been insulated with copper-plated walls, wire-meshed windows and heavy coppered thresholds to form a Faraday cage to trap radio waves inside the building.

GBT isn’t the only large astronomical telescope, though. China recently completed work on the largest space telescope in the world. The dish design is nearly double the size of the Arecibo Observatory (1,000 feet) in Puerto Rico at over 1,640 feet.  After becoming operational in September, the 500-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope will be used for both astronomical studies and research on discovering potential extraterrestrial life forms.

About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.

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