Are you looking for some peace and quiet? The small town of Green Bank, West Virginia, claims to be the quietness town in America. Nestled deep in a remote valley high in the mountains of West Virginia, the little town shares its isolation with the world’s largest moveable radio telescope.
If you live there, you cannot have a cell phone, Wi-Fi or an unshielded microwave oven. Even an electric blanket can be prohibited. Why all the fuss? The radio telescope is listening to the faintest whispers of distant stars and galaxies, and even the slightest bit of static “noise” can drown out these faint signals from the deep cosmos.
I had the good fortune of visiting this beautiful but strange place a couple of weeks ago. There are a number of radio telescopes at the observatory rising like creatures from another world high above the treetops. The big one is truly impressive, standing as high as a 50-story building and weighing in at 17 million pounds. The dish which receives the signals is larger than two football fields. We got to watch it move from one observation to another, which it did almost completely noiselessly.
So what is a radio telescope and how does it differ from an optical telescope? When we look out at the world or the stars with our eyes, we see what we call visible light, which is a tiny part of a much broader spectrum of “light” known as the electromagnetic spectrum. Radio telescopes tune into some of this broader spectrum, and they can tell us much more about the universe we live in than an ordinary telescope like the Hubble orbiting telescope or that almost forgotten one buried away in your garage somewhere.
What does the Green Bank telescope listen to up there? Currently a group of astronomers are studying mysterious objects in the deep cosmos which emit very short bursts of energy called Fast Radio Bursts. These weird bursts can last for only a millionth of a second, but yet that telescope can catch them. Another object under close scrutiny is the massive black hole at the center of our galaxy.
Also, quite a bit of time at the big telescope is devoted to SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Astronomers have expanded the search to neighboring galaxies as well as possible planets closer to home. They are listening for a repeating radio signal that would be very unlikely to be produced by natural causes. So far, nobody has found anything or at least anything they are telling us about.
The late, great physicist Stephen Hawking once warned us that it might not be wise for us to look for little green men in flying saucers. In our history every time an advanced civilization (them) have met a primitive civilization (us) it did not turn out very well for the primitive civilization.
Coming back a little closer to home, here are a few things to look at up in the sky. Early morning at dawn you cannot miss two very bright objects. Brilliant Venus dominates the east high above the horizon just as the sky starts to light up with the coming sunrise. In the west, Jupiter, which is also very bright, mirrors Venus in the east. In between the two, high in the south, the constellation Orion with all its bright stars gives us a preview of the stars we will see soon on a clear winter’s night.
If you are not up that early, the Summer Triangle, composed of three bright stars is hanging up there in the west early in the evening. Saturn gleams modestly with a yellowish glow in the southwest, and the Milky Way, our home in the vast cosmos, stretches across the sky.