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Life in the Quiet Zone: West Virginia Town Avoids Electronics for Science

Neighbors of giant radio telescope give up wireless gadgets so astronomers can hear the music of the spheres.

GREEN BANK, West Virginia—The barrage of noise and distractions that are all but inescapable in most American communities is refreshingly absent in this unassuming hamlet, located in the wooded hills of Pocahontas County, four hours west of Washington, D.C. Here, no cell phones chirp or jingle, and local kids aren't glued to the glowing screens of their mobile devices. Older residents roll down their car windows to greet each other and leave their front doors unlocked.

But Green Bank, population 143, isn't a technological backwater. On the contrary, it is the proud home of one of the marvels of the space age: the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, or GBT for short. Towering nearly 500 feet above its wide, green valley, with a dish large enough to cradle a football field, the GBT is the world's biggest fully steerable radio telescope—and one of the largest movable objects anywhere on land. Locals jokingly refer to it as the Great Big Thing.

The GBT and other radio telescopes enable astronomers to detect and study objects in space that give off little visible light but emit naturally occurring radio waves—objects such as pulsars, gas clouds, and distant galaxies.

Because of its vast size and sophisticated design, the GBT is exquisitely sensitive to even the faintest radio pulses coming from space. For the same reason, it is also extremely susceptible to electronic interference. Any device that generates electromagnetic radiation—a cell phone, a television, a wireless Internet router—can skew its data. And so the people who live in these parts must, by law, forego some of the gadgets that most of us take for granted.

Those restrictions began in the 1950s, when the Federal Communications Commission created the National Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000-square-mile swath of sparsely populated countryside that straddles the borders of West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland. Use of the airwaves inside the zone is strictly regulated to ensure that the high-tech telescopes at Green Bank and nearby Sugar Grove can operate with minimal disturbance.

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Visitors to these mountain communities might assume that local residents resent the lifestyle adjustments they have to make for the sake of scientific research. But complaints are rarely voiced, and the area even attracts people who are hypersensitive to electromagnetic energy.

"If you work in Green Bank, it's because you want this kind of life," says Michael Holstine, business manager of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which operates the GBT.

Holstine is quick to acknowledge the ironic aspects of working at the facility: Scientists who use some of the world's most advanced instruments can't use a microwave oven to heat their lunch. And then there was the time astronomers were baffled by a mysterious distortion of their data. They had a laugh when they discovered that the errant energy waves were coming from battery-operated fans sold in the facility's gift shop.

Hearing Cosmic Whispers

Astronomers first tilted the GBT's giant ear toward the stars in 2000, and the cosmic whispers they've been hearing ever since have yielded insights into the nature of the universe.

This past September, the GBT contributed to a staggering discovery: Our Milky Way galaxy is situated in a supercluster of galaxies 500 million light-years in diameter, with a mass of 100 million billion suns.

Another project currently under way uses the GBT to search the skies for primordial gas that formed as the universe cooled. Site director Karen O'Neil, who keeps a green alien figurine on her desk, says maps of the gas, used in conjunction with computer models, can help "determine where theories of the creation and evolution of the universe are correct and where they may need revision."

The GBT also recently detected a hydrogen cloud hurtling toward the Milky Way at 150 miles a second, predicted to crash into our galaxy in about 30 million years.

Haze on the Horizon

Two years ago, a different type of cloud cast a shadow over Green Bank's future. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has been the sole source of funding for the giant telescope ever since its steel parts were ordered. In 2012 the NSF, facing tighter budgets and changing priorities, asked an independent panel of astronomers to study its facilities and offer ideas for trimming costs.

The committee recommended shuttering the GBT and nine other telescopes over a period of years to free up funds for research grants and future facilities, such as a new telescope under construction in Hawaii that will be used to study the sun.

"This is not the only facility with some unique view of sky," said Harvard astronomer Daniel Eisenstein, who chaired the committee.

Holstine and his staff were dumbfounded by the panel's recommendation. "There were assumptions made about the capabilities of the GBT that are not correct," he says, adding that experiments that take an hour with the GBT could take hundreds of times longer with other telescopes.

Repercussions would also be felt on the ground. The observatory is one of the largest employers in the county, drawing scientists and tourists from around the world and generating almost $29 million in revenue each year for West Virginia.

The possibility of that loss concerns many Green Bank residents, including Sheriff David Jonese. His officers communicate by radio on a frequency that doesn't interfere with the observatory, but they can't use mobile computers in their cars to run background checks.

Still, Jonese prefers to operate the old-fashioned way. "What the Quiet Zone and observatory bring to this community . . . I'd much rather have that than what the communication brings."

To keep the GBT up and running, the NSF is looking for partners to share its $10 million annual operating costs. So far, West Virginia University has chipped in a million dollars. But at the moment it's impossible to see what lies over the horizon for the telescope and its home in Green Bank.

Follow Sasha Ingber on Twitter.

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