Green Bank telescope to search sky

'Largest dynamic structure on Earth' growing in West Virginia

March 26, 2000|By Bob Dart | Bob Dart,Cox News Service

GREEN BANK, W.Va. -- The world's largest machine on dry land seems out of place in the rugged isolation of Deer Creek Valley.

But this patch of scarce flatland, sparsely populated and surrounded by the Allegheny Mountains, is the ideal home for the gleaming white two-acre radio telescope that looms above neighboring farms.

For four decades, this remote Pocahontas County hamlet has been "the center of American radio astronomy," explained Mark McKinnon, deputy site director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory facility at Green Bank.

Shielded by the mountains from earthly interference such as radio stations, Green Bank's sensitive telescopes have explored distant galaxies by collecting radio waves since 1958. Now construction crews are nearing completion of a colossal new one packed with high-tech improvements. It could let astronomers examine uncharted reaches of the universe, and perhaps alter our conceptions of time and space and creation.

The new Green Bank Telescope (GBT) will be "the largest dynamic structure on Earth," said McKinnon. The only bigger machines are aircraft carriers and similar-sized ocean vessels.

The project has taken more than a decade. It began shortly after the collapse of Green Bank's 26-year-old radio telescope in late 1988. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, famous for looking after the home folks, quickly persuaded Congress to appropriate $75 million to begin building a much bigger replacement.

After considerable complications and delay, GBT -- weighing 16 million pounds and as tall as the Washington Monument -- is to be completed this summer.

Having watched the telescope take shape like a monstrous roller-coaster, its neighbors are curious about what it will find, and thankful for the dollars that its construction brought into a hardscrabble community.

The region was initially chosen for an observatory because of "its lack of potential for economic development," said McKinnon.

Pocahontas County is about 100 miles long and 50 miles wide, but only about 8,000 people live there. On the winding mountain roads, some school buses take two hours to reach the high school in Marlinton, the county seat. The Monogahela National Forest covers much of the area.

110 people employed

Steady paychecks are hard to come by. The observatory employs 110 people. Other residents are farmers or loggers. There is mostly seasonal work at the Snowshoe Ski Resort on the far side of Little Mountain.

"You have to string together several jobs to make a living," said Tony Samons, who works as the Green Bank barber and a finish carpenter and preaches to a congregation of about 40 at the Church of God.

"There are three sets of people here," allowed Samons, who charges $4 for a haircut. "First there are the natives. To be a native, your grandpa had to be born here."

Samons, who was born in Kentucky and moved here in 1979, puts himself and many of the observatory people into a second group: longtime residents who have reared families hereabouts, are acquainted with everybody, but aren't "natives."

The third group is made up of "real outsiders" such as transient construction workers or visiting hunters, he said. "The natives call them pilgrims."

It's a stubbornly insular place, where folks mind their own business. "There are still a few people around who would sell you moonshine if you wanted it," said Samons. "But more grow marijuana. They plant it in the national forest or between rows in cornfields."

On Sundays, Green Bank's churchgoers have a choice of the Liberty Presbyterian, Wesley Chapel United Methodist, Hebron Baptist or the Church of God. Wares at the Green Bank General Store range from hand-sewn quilts to crossbows. A homemade ice cream sandwich costs 69 cents, a double-edged ax goes for $45 and a used mandolin will set you back $145. For a fee, the Mountain State Meat Market will turn a hunter's venison into sausage, jerky or cured deer ham.

Green Bank has a clinic, a public library, an elementary school, a post office, a hardware store, a volunteer fire department and rescue squad, a bank, an Oldsmobile dealer, an antique store, a one-chair barber shop and a combination convenience store, gas station and pizza parlor. And now it has a new, world-class GBT -- which stands for "Great Big Telescope," according to local humorists.

The Green Bank Telescope has been described as an ear to the sky. But that's not exactly right.

A radio telescope doesn't "hear" radio signals from outer space any more than a car radio "hears" a Dixie Chicks song broadcast by a country music station. Both have an antenna that collects radio waves, said McKinnon. The car radio converts these waves into sounds. The radio telescope translates them into images or graphs that let astronomers learn about unseen objects in the universe.

Radio signals reaching Earth from faraway galaxies are feeble, often barely discernible. So astronomers are constructing ever-bigger antennae to catch them.

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