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Beyond the stars Green Bank telescopes search for signs of life


The Register-Herald

GREEN BANK, W.Va. — It’s a chilly December morning 450 feet above ground on the Green Bank Telescope. The weather forecast calls for a crisp, sunny day, yet thick fog and clouds linger in the mountain air well past the 10 o’clock hour.

“They’ve usually cleared up by now,” Mike Holstine says, looking out at the sky. “You never know though.”

The surface area of the Green Bank Telescope dish alone is 2.3 acres, large enough to hold West Virginia University’s entire football stadium.
(Photo by Rick Barbero)

Holstine is well-acquainted with the telescope often referred to as the GBT, or the “Great Big Telescope.” He’s been with the observatory for 25 years, hired on when construction of the telescope commenced in 1991. He was offered the business manager position six years later.

The GBT is just one of eight telescopes on site at the Green Bank Observatory, but at 485 feet at its highest point, the world’s largest fully steerable telescope towers above its neighbors.

It’s eerily quiet atop the GBT. The only sounds are the wind and the faint clicking of the newly installed multi-pixel receiver Argus, named for the hundred-eyed giant of Greek mythology.

The quiet of the surroundings is why the telescopes and the observatory are there.

In fact, it’s a law — one state and one federal — that things remain that quiet. Green Bank is located in the heart of the 13,000-square-mile National Radio Quiet Zone — an area bigger than the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.

Following World War II, Holstine explains, the United States found itself falling behind Europe and Australia as they began studying radio astronomy and constructing telescopes. So, in 1955, several entities — the National Science Foundation, MIT and AUI (Associated Universities Inc.) — decided, in order to stay abreast in the field, they needed to construct a National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

“They needed an extremely quiet place to do it,” Holstine said. “So they picked 29 sites up and down the East Coast and Green Bank was one of them. Then they sent a team of scientists to each of them and Green Bank was the quietest of all of them.”

Three years later, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s first telescope was complete.

“It’s the 85-foot telescope,” Holstine said, adding, “We’re very creative with the names around here.

“It’s the first telescope used for the modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence by Dr. Frank Drake. He used it to develop the Drake Equation.”

Through the years, additional telescopes have been added, including the 140-foot telescope in 1964. That telescope, Holstine explained, is the first and only polar mount telescope ever built.

“In 1964, computer control wasn’t that good,” he said, “So this way, they would know one axis was always pointing at Polaris.”

The polar mount telescope includes the largest ball spherical bearing ever constructed.

But it’s the GBT that Holstine calls the observatory’s pride and joy.

The GBT wasn’t always in the plans, however. When the 210-foot telescope was under construction in 1960, Holstine said the NRAO decided to put a good, temporary telescope in place to work during the five-year construction period.

“But it worked so well and was such a great instrument, we just kept running it and maintaining it,” he said.

So that five-year temporary telescope operated for 27 years, until Nov. 15, 1988, when a structural failure brought it crashing to the ground.

“The observatory went from No. 1 in the world to No. 4 overnight,” Holstine said. Fortunately, the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd stepped up and acquired emergency appropriations to replace it.

“We wanted something new, better and different,” Holstine said. “Something that was state of the art and pushing the envelope. So the GBT was born and within two years of the collapse, construction of this started.”

• • •

The GBT, completed in 2000, is taller than the Statue of Liberty, the Great Pyramids of Giza and just smaller than the Washington Monument. The surface area of the dish itself is 2.3 acres.

“You can fit WVU’s entire football stadium inside the dish,” Holstine said.

The entire telescope is on wheels — 16 to be exact — and weighs almost 17 million pounds.

That makes it the heaviest wheel and track system in the world.

And unlike the other telescopes, the dish of the GBT moves. In fact, it always moves.

“It can move 360 degrees all the way around,” Holstine said. “But we generally only move it 270 degrees because in the center of this is a cable wrap, but it can see the whole sky.”

The part of the dish that doesn’t move side-to-side moves up and down, going from 95 degrees all the way to 4 degrees.

“It can see 85 percent of the celestial sphere,” Holstine said. “Almost everything there is to see in the universe.”

As promised, the clouds hanging in the air around the GBT lift to reveal a beautiful, yet still crisp December morning. A few snowflakes fall, aided by the telescope’s elevation in an already mountainous region of southern West Virginia.

Holstine has taken a man lift to the top of the GBT on this day because it’s a scheduled maintenance day, the one day of the week astronomers stop studying the sky from the telescope as crews work to ensure everything works properly.

It’s the only time, he says, the telescope is not in motion.

“There are several types of movement,” he explained. “If an astronomer is doing a mapping study, they may point it to a source and move it across the source. They may move it side to side and up and down.”

The astronomers do this from the control and data collection room on the second floor of the lab building, visible — along with most of Pocahontas County — now that the clouds have lifted.

Holstine explains that the telescope is used by both observatory staff astronomers, universities — Argus is a project with Stanford University — and astronomers from across the world.

And, with project approval, the scientists use the telescopes for free.

“That’s the beauty of it,” Holstine said. “With the NSF funding, it’s open skies, and the data is also open skies.”

Funding, however, has become an issue at the observatory in recent years.

On Oct. 1, Green Bank parted ways with its parent and founding organization, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. This came after a 2012 recommendation that the NSF defund the center by 2017. Rather than shut its doors, which many feared would happen, the center went rogue, establishing its own Green Bank Observatory.

In order to keep the doors open and the telescopes operational, Holstine said the center began working with several outside sources, including universities, like Penn State, Ohio State and North Carolina.

West Virginia University works with the observatory by paying for dedicated telescope time for its astronomy program and also through its association with the Nanograv Project.

“Two of their astronomy professors are a major part of the project, which searches for gravitational waves,” Holstine explained.

Russian millionaire Yuri Milner, through the Breakthrough Listen Foundation, has purchased 20 percent of the GBT time over the next 10 years as part of a $100 million project to search for signs of extraterrestrial civilizations.

And the 140-foot telescope is being used by the Russian space agency for assistance with a radio telescope they put into space a couple of decades ago.

“It doesn’t have a lot of computer memory,” Holstine explained, “So this is basically an earth station for receiving radio telescope satellite data for them.”

But ingenuity is what it takes for the newly christened Green Bank Observatory to stay afloat.

Among the ideas that have been tossed about by the NSF are mothballing or deconstructing the facility or using it as strictly an educational center.

Holstine says he doesn’t think that will happen.

To operate just the telescope, the observatory needs $8 million a year. To keep everything going — all the telescopes, education, science and visitors center — that number is $12 million to $15 million.

“And that sounds like a lot of money, but when you talk about federal budgets, it’s not a lot for the output you get.”

This year, the NSF will provide approximately 66 percent of the funding, or a little more than $8 million. In 2018, the number will drop to about half of that. Beyond that, the future is unclear.

The final answer, Holstine said, is expected some time in the spring.

“We fully expect the NSF will continue to fund the facility at some level when it’s all done,” he said. “When all that’s done, we will continue to find external funds and we will keep the facility open.”

• • •

Holstine looks out at the observatory grounds from 450 feet in the air. The work performed on those 2,700 acres, he says, is not only significant in the world of science, but also in Pocahontas County and West Virginia.

Astronomy and West Virginia, he said, go hand in hand.

“People don’t realize we’re here or what we do,” he says. “The amount of research that happens here is just world class. These receivers, there’s nothing like these in the world. Development of these things is part and parcel to the future of radio astronomy. And everything that’s required to make these things work is part and parcel to the future of West Virginia.”

Holstine points to the uncertainty of the coal industry and adds the expertise that is required in the field. The technology and engineering.

That expertise, he said, can be used anywhere

“We’ve gotta be able to expand and embrace. Part of the problem is, West Virginians are not good at tooting our own horns. We’re not good at bragging. You take what you have and make do with it, but we’ve got to embrace the fact that we’ve got the capabilities in this state that are untapped completely and we’ve got to put that right out there in front of everybody.

“And this is a perfect example of that,” he continued. “Right here, in the middle of the mountains in the middle of a rural population. The most rural county in the state. Lowest population county east of the Mississippi.”

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