Green Bank, West Virginia is a key location for past and present-day cosmic research, as it’s been home to the iconic Green Bank Observatory ever since it first opened in 1958 as the United States’ first national astronomy hub.
Here, operational telescopes, including the world’s largest steerable radio telescope, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, or GBT, have found black holes, gravitational waves, pulsars, and whatnot. Also, it is where just last month, local researchers detected the most massive neutron star ever captured by telescopic lenses.
And it doesn't stop here: Green Bank is also where the comprehensive study and search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) kicked off. In 1960, Frank Drake started Project Ozma here, the first US state-funded effort to listen for extraterrestrial intelligence and intercept signals, if there are any. Besides, the town is the place where he wrote his famed equation about the possibility of worlds other than ours.
SETI work is still ongoing at Green Bank, with a gigantic trove of one million gigabytes of related data filed over the last three years having been released to the public.
However, there is a nuance, if not a setback that comes with the continuous scientific progress in the area.
This part of the larger Pocahontas County, with a population of only 8,500 people, has long lived under binding anti-radio frequency interference (RFI) legislation, which forbids any devices or appliances at home or beyond that would emit RFIs - as these may ruin research, experts claim.
One of the past legislative acts that still applies there is the Virginia’s Radio Astronomy Zoning Act of 1956 that says it’s “illegal to operate or cause to be operated any electrical equipment within a two-mile radius of... any radio astronomy facility”.
“In order to detect extraterrestrial civilisations, the GBT must be highly, highly sensitive”, Popular Mechanics’ Matt Blitz wrote, comparing the frequencies emitted by astronomical phenomena with common RFI, like that of ordinary WiFi connections, concluding that it’s almost the same 2.4 GHz.
There is even special staff at the observatory who are in charge of pinpointing RFI hotspots that could potentially harm research - RFI technician Chuck Niday is one of them. Part of his job is to drive around looking for unauthorised radio waves, and in today’s era of high-tech and smart homes, these are becoming ubiquitous. "We got tons of WiFi around here. It’s kind of don’t ask, don’t tell", Popular Mechanics quoted Niday as saying. He noted, however, that there is little that could be done about it - apart from the locations being properly mapped for further study, as observatory staffers don't have the power to strip residents of their WiFi spots.
Dr Karen O’Neil, the GBO’s site director, admitted that it is challenging to keep track of new RFI-causing WiFi connections, adding, though, that interference is still greatly limited in the area, especially compared to other places.
“The GBT is the most sensitive telescope in the world”, noted O’Neil, further stressing: “We use it to answer some of the most fundamental questions, like how stars and planets form and how life actually got created. If we ever lose the GBT, we will lose ability to dig deep into the universe".