Where do you go to ‘get away from it all’? I had always considered the beach as my ultimate get-away location, until I recently read about Green Bank, W.Va.
A co-worker recently shared an article about this unique town in the middle of the Allegheny Mountain Range. For anyone wishing to escape from cell phones, TV and internet, this place is a dream-come true.
In this small town, population 143, luxuries such as cell phones and wireless devices are illegal or, in some rare cases, only scantly available. The town sits within the National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ), a 13,000 square mile stretch of land that houses and protects several large telescopes built by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).
According to www.pocahontascountywv.com, the NRAO “designs, builds and operates the world’s most sophisticated and advanced radio telescopes.” The telescopes record radio emissions from the sky, gathering data from the solar system and searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. Many of the radio emissions are very faint. As a result, man-made radio interference must be limited in order that the weaker, solar waves can be detected by the telescopes. For that reason, the FCC created the National Radio Quiet Zone in 1958, to ensure an area where solar research could be done with little or no man-made interference.
Green Bank and its surrounding areas proved to be the perfect location for the Quiet Zone. Its rural setting, low population density, and the natural barriers of the mountain range already made for an area with limited radio emissions. Today, Green Bank’s radio activity is primarily limited to first responders, weather radio, alarm systems, and just a few low-power broadcast radio stations. If NRAO researchers detect unapproved, man-made signals, an employee will drive around the town to find and squelch it.
One of the largest telescopes housed and used in the Quiet Zone is the steerable Green Bank Telescope (GBT). This telescope stands 485 feet tall and weighs in at 17 million pounds. Its reflecting surface alone measures 2.3 acres in area. This, and other highly advanced equipment produced by the NRAO, is used by scientists around the world to study the sun, planets and various objects in our own solar system, as well as objects millions of light-years away.
Because of the unique role it plays in scientific research, the town of Green Bank is becoming a growing tourism destination. The NRAO has opened a new, ultra-modern education center here. Visitors have the opportunity to explore instruments, including an 8 foot tall working model of the steerable GBT. Through the model, visitors can simulate a solar observation session, analyze data and images, and receive real-time bulletins about discoveries as they happen. Because of all it offers, the Center was named one of the “Best Nerd Road Trips” in the August, 2013 edition of Popular Science magazine. The town itself has even seen an influx (albeit small) in population, as people who suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity have found the community to be a healthy, radar-free alternative.
Green Bank is certainly an example of extremes. The nearly 150 scientists and researchers who work at the NRAO using massive telescopes and highly-technical equipment are a sharp contrast to the 143 Green Bank residents who enjoy the town for its lack of cell phones, internet, and other wireless signals. The town also offers some sharp contradictions
in scenery. The giant GBT telescope certainly stands out like a sore thumb in an otherwise scenic area wrapped in barnyards, mountains, streams, green fields and green banks (as the name of the town implies).
To learn more about Green Bank, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory has a fascinating website where viewers can read more about what does (and does not) happen in this (literally) quiet corner of the world.
Visit www.nrao.edu for some incredible pictures of these man-made telescopes. Or, if you prefer to visit the town itself, I’d love to hear about your experience there. My email is email@example.com. But remember, you may have to wait to send your message until you’re back in an area where wi-fi is available!