A Special trip to West Virginia

About a month ago I was invited to go to Snowshoe, West Virginia to go skiing for an extended week end with 4 other guys. I jumped at the chance as I had never been there.

Snowshoe ski trail map

I looked back and the last time I went skiing was 7 years ago. Time is not your friend. My diet is not my friend (gained a few pounds!). Age is not your friend as stamina and core strength is waning. Now you are going to hurtle down an icy slope on skis and hope not to hurt yourself in pursuit of 4 ski maniacs… I did manage to get away scott free from injury! I did take an afternoon off and went sightseeing the area and drove by the Green Bank Observatory, stopping in to check it out. This area is near the center of the very large area called “The radio free zone” where two way transmitters are not allowed. Within 3 miles not even your HT and Cell Phone are allowed! When taking a tour of the facility, they put your cell phone, iWatch and digital cameras into a Faraday cage mounted in a diesel van that has no ignition noise. All this to suppress the electronic noise of the personal equipment. They are dead serious about RFI noise suppression! This radio free zone is subdivided into 3 areas depending on proximity to the radio telescopes. Here is the largest zone (WV, VA, MD):

The area has no TV or Radio station broadcasts, no cell towers either as this very large antenna is trying to pick up signals from distant galaxies and find the hydrogen line signal looking for civilizations and the presence of water and other elements. It is in a valley with 2000′ hills on all sides providing shielding from radio interference from outside the zone.

They have interference monitors that are sensitive. A story was told on the bus by the driver that also works at the site. He said that one day the ski lift operator got a phone call from the observatory that stated he had a person on the lift that had a high power radio on him (possibly a HT). The lift operator replied that he has hundreds of people around him, how would he know who it was? The answer was “he is right next to you and just got off the lift”. The lift operator went over to the skier and stated that he had just gotten a strange phone call, did he have a radio on his person. The skier stated of course I do here it is! It was turned off immediately. The ski lift is about 10-15 miles away from the antenna.

The original 300′ dish was in service for 27 years but failed due to metal fatigue in 1988. The plans were made to replace it with a dish that was much larger and had active panels that can redirect the signal (re-focus) the entire 2209 panels to an accuracy of the thickness of two widths of a human hair. The dish is 110 x 100 meters wide and can hold an entire football field in the dish. The sensing tower is 30% higher than the Statue of Liberty. This structure can make one revolution in about 9 minutes and reaches 85% of the sky. It took 10 years to build and was completed in 2000 and placed into service costing about $100 million. The observatory has 18 other dishes and antenna arrays spread out over the large campus. One is directly connected to the University of NC at Chapel Hill. Many projects are ongoing including SETI (looking for extra terestrial life, measuring the effect of our missile launch to hit the asteroid coming by Earth, and many other interesting projects.

Funding is mostly through the Science Foundation but the federal involvement has been cut back to 60% so they have to scramble to find paying projects to support the yearly budget of about $15 million/year. It is so typical that our government builds a fantastic installation at great cost but then cuts the budget to support it later. They let the observatory staff scramble to maintain the equipment so that it does not fail like the first one did. The benefit of an instrument like this is only measured in the future when we make discoveries like the first black hole in Sagittarius (in the middle of our galaxy). Or how about measuring the effect of our missile explosion on an asteroid that was passing by earth. The measurements of this experiment will help planetary defence against a large asteroid hitting earth and causing mass extinction as what happened to the dinosaurs in the past. Just understanding the universe and what happens to stars like our sun would change the way we see the world.

We all gain benefit eventually from research done well and I encourage you to see it for yourselves and contact your representatives with the idea that they need to support more research in all fields.

It was an afternoon well spent and I walked away with a new found admiration for the engineers, workmen, scientists and all the support staff keeping this running and discovering new things. Keep up the good work. I had to buy something in the gift shop:

Math Up!
73 Peter, N4PVH.


Published by n4pvh

A ham since 2002, now finally made it to Extra! President of Brightleaf Amateur Radio Club.

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