Star Gazing & Radio Astronomy
Beckon at Green Bank Observatory
By Thomas R. & Deborah A. Fletcher
Think of space exploration and it’s doubtful the first place that comes to mind is wild, rugged West Virginia.
But there are remote regions of space explored 24-7 from tiny Green Bank, nestled in one of the most mountainous areas of the state.
This is a world that Cape Canaveral and Houston can only dream about.
Located along the mid-eastern side of the state, Green Bank is a worldwide nerve center for radio astronomy
Radio magnetic waves are being observed and recoded 24-7 at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (304-456-2150 or www.gb.nrao.edu/). Awash in fall colors, the majestic setting for the observatory's powerful telescope is shown above.* *
For visitors, a trip to the Green Bank Observatory to view its massive telescope and take a tour is a fun way to ponder the power of the universe.
A Bit of History
Radio astronomy studies cosmic radio emissions which arise from naturally occurring processes.
Emanating from deep in space these waves may be observed far beyond the limits of the most powerful optical telescopes.
Radio astronomy is a fairly new science. It began in the 1930’s when Bell Laboratories scientist Karl G. Jansky discovered a source of extraterrestrial radio waves originating near the center of the Milky Way Galaxy.
Grote Reber, an astronomer and radio engineer, prompted by Jansky’s discovery, built the first radio telescope in 1937. Reber is shown at right with the radio equipment of the era.*
This new science has allowed the mapping of the universe by extending astronomical observation far beyond the limited observation available through optics.
Establishing an Observatory
The National Radio Astronomy Observatory was established in 1956; Green Bank was the first facility.
Why was remote Deer Creek Valley chosen as the telescope site?
The study of radio magnetic waves requires an area with little radio interference. Green Bank, with its low population density and advantageous natural landscape (telescopes are shown below right*) was perfect.
For example, the site is surrounded by mountains that form a natural bowl -- thus blocking out most man-made radio signals.
In addition, the Monongahela National Forest (304-636-1800 or www.fs.fed.us/r9/mnf) 200 Sycamore Street, Elkins, is a neighbor. That ensures that population growth always will be limited.
A Great Big Telescope
The Green Bank facility is home to the world’s largest, fully steerable, single aperture radio telescope: the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (shown in the photos on this page*).
It’s often called the GBT -- or simply Great Big Telescope by some.
Nearly as tall as the Washington Monument, GBT stands 485 feet in height.
The dish itself is 100 by 110 meters — larger than two side-by-side football fields.
Because NRAO Green Bank is a leading facility for the science of radio astronomy, the site is also home to many other large telescopes. Their diameters range from 40 feet to 140 feet.
Grote Reber’s original radio telescope is on display at the facility’s entrance along Route 92/28 about 30 miles north of Marlinton.
Visiting the Observatory
From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the observatory is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. The observatory's fall hours -- starting the Tuesday after Labor Day though October -- are Wednesday to Sunday from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
During both summer and fall, free public tours start at top of every hour from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Guided tours begin in the Green Bank Science Center which features hands-on exhibits and a site introduction.
Winter and spring hours, which begin in November and continue through the Friday before Memorial Day, are Wednesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
During the winter/spring period, guided tours are at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.
The Galaxy Gift Shop offers spare fare and logo items including T-shirts, polo shirts, ball caps and coffee mugs.
The Starlight Café, open daily during the summer from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., has a nice selection of sandwiches and drinks.
One insider's tip! Basic film cameras are welcome at the site, but advanced electronic and digital cameras are prohibited. They cause “radio pollution” that can ruin the data being collected by scientists.
Here is a .pdf Green Bank Observatory brochure with more information for visitors.
Additional Traveler Diversions
Just because the observatory is located in one of the East’s most isolated areas doesn’t mean there’s nothing else to do in the area.
Train lovers might enjoy a ride on the Cass Scenic Railroad (304-456-4300 or www.cassrailroad.com/). This logging steam engine takes visitors on rides to the top of Bald Knob for stunning views. (see photo at right*)
Similarly, the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad (877-686-9477 or www.mountainrail.com/) 315 Railroad Ave., Elkins, fields many diverse rail trips.
One option is the steam Durbin Rocket, which chugs through Monongahela National Forest near the Greenbrier River.
The Durbin Rocket is shown at left.*
Hikers and cyclists might head for the Greenbrier River Trail (800-336-7009 or www.greenbrierrailtrailstatepark.com), Marlinton, WV.
This longest rail trail in WV stretches more than 78 miles, crosses 35 bridges and traverses two tunnels along the Greenbrier River.
One scenic portion of the Greenbrier River Trail is shown at right.*
Civil War buffs will enjoy the 285-acre Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park (800-CALL-WVA or www.droopmountainbattlefield.com).
It features a lookout tower—with an excellent view of the surrounding valley, as well as interpretive exhibits, a picnic area and hiking trails. On November 6, 1863 the last major Civil War battle in WV was fought here, with the Confederates driven south into Virginia.
Elsewhere, summer and winter activities abound at Snowshoe Mountain Resort. Check our other story on this site for specifics: Snowshoe, WV: Summer Paradise, Winter Playground.
Trains, trails, history and eco-travel aside, though, space exploration remains the prime draw for many visitors to this remote area of the Mountaineer State.
A telescopic shot of Mars is shown at left.*
At the Green Bank Observatory, travelers may peruse the massive telescope, ponder the meaning of the universe, and star gaze into the heavens – all from the remote hills of West Virginia.
For More Information
National Radio Astronomy Observatory: 304-456-2150 or www.gb.nrao.edu. See photo at right.**
Pocahontas County Convention & Visitors Bureau: 800-336-7009, 304-799-4636 or www.pocahontascountywv.com
*Photos are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of either NRAO/AUI or the Pocohontas County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
**Photos are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of Thomas Fletcher at www.proseandphotos.com. All rights reserved for ALL photos. Please do not link to nor copy the above photos. Thank you.