The first stop on our STEM-filled road trip takes us into the mountains and valleys of West Virginia’s Pocahontas County. It’s called Green Bank, WV, and the area surrounding it is home to the state’s largest ski resort, a scenic railroad tour and even one of the most unique geographical features on the state. Green Bank is worth the trip, though, by itself.
Green Bank is home to the Green Bank Telescope, the world’s largest fully steerable telescope. In fact, it’s the largest moveable object on land! It stands 450 feet above ground and weighs 16 million pounds. To put that into perspective, the Statue of Liberty is 305 feet tall and weighs 450,000 pounds. It’s hard to recognize the size of the GBT since mountains surround it, but an entire full size football field could fit into the dish!
Size comparison of the Green Bank Telescope compared to the National Monument and the Statue of Liberty. Photo via SPIE.org.
The Green Bank Telescope isn’t what you might imagine when you think telescope, though. There’s no tiny hole to peer through and no brightly colored photographs of distant galaxies. Instead, the GBT collects radio waves, the faintest wavelength detectable. Radio waves are so weak that it is estimated that the combined energy from all the radio waves ever collected from space is weaker than a falling snowflake!
This is a difficult concept to grasp, and invisible wavelengths aren’t always the most engaging topic, but the great thing about visiting Green Bank is that the site is super visitor friendly. There are events, daily presentations and even tours. When I say tours, I really mean tours. I was amazed on my first trip to Green Bank at how close I actually got to get to the telescope.
Selfie with my friend Nathan Tehrani, an amazing scientist and communicator, in front of the GBT. Photo via Nathan Tehrani.
Although this photo was taking during a SPOT training weekend, every tour starts with presentations in the visitors center before moving to a diesel powered bus, and ends with the opportunity to stand only a few hundred feet from the telescope!
Notice how I made the distinction about how the bus was powered? That’s because after the visitor’s center parking lot, no devices that might give off interference is allowed near the GBT, and believe it or not, spark plugs can create quite a problem for the super sensitive telescope. Green Bank is located in the National Quiet Zone, or a large area in the United States in which radio transmissions are strongly restricted by law, to facilitate scientific research and military intelligence.
Photo via National Geographic Staff
While you might not notice a huge difference in signals around most of the quiet zone, once you get close to the GBT, you’ll enter a world without cellphones, wifi, cable and even radio! In fact, the microwave on site in Green Bank is kept in a Faraday cage to block out interference from its use! The low-tech lifestyle is attractive to some, though.
If you plan on taking a trip to Green Bank, and I hope you do, I recommend camping right up the road at Senea Rocks to take in the dark skies around the area. Also, you’ll want to make sure you don’t need cell service (or a GPS), and you’ll need a film camera, such as a disposable one, if you want to take pictures past the visitor’s center.
So grab your friends and family and a preloaded iPod and check out Green Bank, West Virginia! If you’ve been before, let me know what your favorite part was!