Saturday, August 24, 2019

The Universe Is Whispering To Us

In July we went to Mothapalooza (something else I need to blog about ... someday I'll catch up with all my pictures). We also visited a number of other places along the way (more pictures to go through).

Including the Green Bank Observatory, in West Virginia.

A bit of serendipity, as this was not on the itinerary.

This was, although not for me:

Image courtesy Patty Rehn
The Via Ferrata at Nelson Rocks. Yeah, no.

Eleni, Rachel, Patty

Our friend Eleni, Eleni's friend Rachel, and Patty in their nice orange helmets, spent the morning engaged in activities no sane person would ever consider.

I. along with our friend Marie, took advantage of the proximity and visited the radio observatory.

The observatory is located in the National Radio Quiet Zone, which limits the use of radio transmitters in the area.

We took a tour to see the scopes up close. Cellphones needed to be off. The motor vehicles allowed in to the scope area were older models, preferably diesel engines, and no fancy electronics. Bicycles were ok. And there are hiking trails though the area.

This truck is full of high tech equipment used to find sources of radio interference in the surrounding area, and work with the owners to remediate the issue. Faulty electric blankets, malfunctioning microwave ovens, WiFi base stations, to name but a few. My favorite was flying squirrels with radio collars.

Another limitation is on digital cameras. Seems the telescopes are so sensitive that even the small bit of radio frequency (RF) noise given off can ruin an observing session.

Thus, unless you have a film camera, all images are at a distance. Alas, I was not aware of this restriction until we were on the tour bus heading out to view the scopes. Has I known I could have purchased one of the disposable film cameras in the gift shop. Oh well.

Fortunately I had a Canon SX 70 HS with me. A camera with a whooping 65x optical zoom, the 35 mm equivalent of a 1365 mm lens. Wowza!

In Uganda (more pictures to process!) several of the participants had so called 'bridge' cameras. Lightweight with superzoom capabilities. The most popular was the Sony HX line. Having a lightweight camera for the Iceland hike (still more pictures to get to, I'll never catch up) was very appealing. But while I'm very happy with my Sony RX 100 II, I opted instead for the Canon for two reasons. The Sony camera was last updated in 2014. And it did not allow for shooting in RAW mode (I'm not good enough to shoot JPEGs). There are tradeoffs. The camera has a small sensor size, and the image quality is not as good as a DSLR. But is another tool in my bag.

I was able to take pictures around the visitors center, of the historical radio telescopes there.

Marie, in the shade of the tree, ponders life, the universe, and everything. And Grote Reber's home made radio telescope. This is not a facsimile, it is the actual telescope, transported from Wheaton, IL to Green Bank where it was reassembled and painted for display. No longer a functional instrument it is a fascinating bit of astronomical history.

Reber had learned of Karl Jansky's pioneering work in radio astronomy at Bell Labs, which inspired him to build his receiver in his back yard. A replica of Jansky's much more primitive receiver is shown above. Jansky was investigating radio noise and discovered that something at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, now known to be a supermassive black hole, was emitting radio waves.

Also on display is the horn antenna used by Harold Ewen and Edward Purcell at Harvard University. With this they were the first to detect the 21 cm radiation from neutral hydrogen.

But the star of the show was the Green Bank Telescope, the worlds largest movable structure. It is massive. And very good at detecting the whispers.

To give an idea of the size, the red light at the top of the secondary holder is six feet tall. The dish could hold two football fields, with room for bleachers.

📡  📡  📡  📡  📡

Sadly, this facility, which was once the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO, which has since added other facilities) was slated to lose all NSF funding starting in 2016.  Thus a private consortium took it over and rechristened it the Green Bank Observatory. It is yet to be seen if these new sources of funding will be enough to maintain the facility long term. I hope so.

Maybe if we used the money wasted on Trumps golf outings ...

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