Searching for E.T. at West Virginia’s Green Bank Observatory

After traveling along the Highland Scenic Highway during our summer road trip, we were bound for a very unique and unusual destination: Green Bank, WV! More specifically, we were heading to the Green Bank Observatory, which is a must-do for anyone living in or visiting West Virginia! And while I realize posts with pictures are much more interesting, this one won’t have a lot, but I promise the reason why is super cool!

The Green Bank Observatory was formerly part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, created in 1956 for pursuing radio astronomy. If you’re wondering what that is, well it’s basically a branch of astronomy that uses antennas, called radio telescopes, to study objects in space based on the radio waves they emit. And Green Bank is actually home to the world’s largest fully-steerable radio telescope, which is strong enough to detect signals from several billion light-years away!

The Green Bank Observatory

The research done with radio telescopes aims to answer questions about what galaxies exist and how they were formed, provide scientists with a better understanding of things like stars, planets, black holes, and more, and even attempt to identify whether extraterrestrial life actually exists and to make contact, if possible.

In 2016, the Green Bank Observatory split off from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and now maintains all of the radio telescopes that are still present in Green Bank, WV. During our road trip, we decided to stop in at the Observatory for their special SETI tour, which gives you a fantastic behind-the-scenes look at the work being done to answer the age-old question: Is there anyone out there??? 

I’ll be quite honest here and tell you that the vast majority of this tour went wayyyyy over my head, but you don’t actually need to know anything about radio astronomy to enjoy the SETI tour (SETI means “search for extraterrestrial intelligence”, by the way). And for the record, the Green Bank Observatory does also offer a shorter, more basic public tour if you just want to see the facility and cover the basics of what they do there, but I do think the SETI tour is worth doing for the behind-the-scenes aspect to it.

The Green Bank Science Center is where all tours will meet and depart from. The gift shop and cafe are in this building as well.

But first…let’s talk about why Green Bank is so unusual. For starters, it’s located within a 13,000 square-mile area known as the National Radio Quiet Zone. Essentially, this part of WV (and some of VA and MD, too) has highly restricted use of and access to radio transmissions. This Quiet Zone was created in the 1950s when the Observatory opened in order to protect the telescopes from interference.

In other words, you ain’t getting cell phone service here, folks! So, if you plan to visit Green Bank and you’re not familiar with the area, do be sure to print out some directions in advance or grab a nice ole map because Google Maps won’t be able to help you get in and out of the area (we did actually use a paper map for most of our last day in WV since we spent a lot of time in the Quiet Zone.)

In addition to the lack of cell phone service, folks who live near the observatory also can’t have microwaves or wifi, nor can they have cordless phones or anything you operate with a remote control. Perhaps most interesting to me was that they can’t even use gas-powered vehicles inside the observatory property. Only diesel vehicles are permitted because the spark plugs in gas-powered vehicles can also interfere with the telescopes’ equipment.

Needless to say, living full-time in Green Bank, WV is probably not for everyone, but it sure is a pretty fascinating place to visit, especially if you believe that life outside Earth exists!

When we arrived in Green Bank for the SETI tour, we checked in at the Science Center and were asked to leave things like FitBits or anything that operates on BlueTooth in our cars. For those who arrived too late to run back to their cars, there was a box on the bus where they could leave these things. This box is known as a Faraday Cage, which serves to cut off electromagnetic fields (and which I only already knew about after having watched an episode of Person of Interest in which they explained how these worked!)

This telescope is in the parking lot and no longer functions, so we could snap a pic before heading out on the tour!

Otherwise, you’re asked to switch your phone to airplane mode when you arrive and it and other electronics will have to be fully switched off before you start your tour, no exceptions! This means you can’t use your phone to take photos, and you can’t use a digital camera either. If you want to take pictures, you’ll need to go old school and bring a film camera with you or else buy a disposable film camera in their gift shop ahead of time.

The SETI tour is similar to the regular public tour in that it drives by all of the radio telescopes on the Green Bank property. What’s different, though, is that the SETI tour also includes visits inside the control rooms, which is part of what drew us to this tour.

Since you’re getting up-close-and-personal with the equipment and essentially walking beneath the telescopes, you need to wear a hard hat to protect your noggin in the event that anything slides off of the telescopes above you. (Also, we were warned to pay attention while walking around since the telescopes can move without notice since they’re mostly controlled now from a station not connected to the telescopes themselves.) Once we all had our hard hats, we hopped on the bus and set out!

During our tour, we visited two different control rooms, one of which was the control room for the 85-foot satellite used in Project OZMA. This was the first real SETI experiment using radio astronomy that was initiated at Green Bank (and the world really), and it was conducted by Frank Drake, an astronomer and astrophysicist. The control room had some of the original equipment, as well as some photos from Drake’s time working there.

Drake was a pioneer in using radio astronomy to attempt to pick up signals from intelligent life out in space. Unfortunately, Project OZMA did NOT receive any signals from outer space to indicate anyone was out there trying to communicate with US, though there was a lot of excitement about a signal that in the end just turned out to be a false alarm (apparently from some nearby military experiment – oops!)

The second control room was once used by another pioneering astronomer named Jill Tarter, whose work was the inspiration for Carl Sagan’s novel, Contact and Jodie Foster’s character in Contact, the movie. Tarter is a legend in the SETI world and during her long and illustrious career in SETI research, she spent time at Green Bank while participating in Project Phoenix. Our tour took us into the control room of the 40-foot telescope that she used during the project, which, also, unfortunately, did not lead to any signals from extraterrestrial life. 

Finally, though the public tour at Green Bank takes visitors up to the fence around the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (aka the “GBT”), the SETI tour actually allows you to go around the fence to get a super up-close view! We walked a full circle around and underneath the telescope and marveled at the sheer size of the ginormous thing.

This is as close as you can get to the GBT with a cell phone or digital camera – if you think it looks big from here I can tell you it’s REALLY big up close!

While you can take photos of the GBT from way over by the Science Center, those photos just can’t do the GBT justice when it comes to seeing this thing up close. For starters, it weighs a whopping 17 million pounds – that’s 8,500 tons, y’all! It’s 485 feet tall, and the surface of its dish is big enough to hold two football fields. So, imagine what it’s like to be standing underneath it. (I couldn’t help but think that our hard hats felt woefully inadequate in the presence of such a behemoth!)

During our stop at the GBT, we were able to walk around the circular concrete base on which the massive telescope stands, and we noted all the oil and grease needed to ensure the telescope can rotate smoothly. Apparently, the concrete for the base had to go down into the ground about 25 feet to the bedrock in order to support the insane weight of the GBT. Holding up 8,500 tons is hard work!

If you look at the picture of the telescope, you’ll see it has a square base with the four points each set on top of a circle. The telescope can rotate 360 degrees around that circular base, and the dish angle can be adjusted to where the edge of the dish is only just a few feet from the ground.

After visiting the various telescopes and control rooms, we also had the opportunity to meet with one of the astronomers who works at Green Bank. He did a rather high-level presentation about the probability of communicating with extraterrestrial life, which I definitely didn’t get for the most part. What I DID get, though, was that it seems like a WHOLE LOT of prettttty specific conditions will need to be absolutely perfect in order for us to make contact with extraterrestrial life (assuming any exists). 

But upon hearing of the very, very, absolutely, teeny, tiny odds for making contact, I had to say that I left with a greater appreciation for what these scientists are doing there. To some extent, it seems like an exercise in futility. On the other hand, how amazing will it be if they ever DO make contact???

It’s hard to even imagine the implications of what such a discovery would have on our planet and our lives, and the scientists at Green Bank haven’t given up hope that one day they’ll be able to learn whether anyone really IS out there. 

And in the meantime, the Green Bank Observatory is a really fun place for people like you and me to visit, and I highly encourage you to make a stop there if you’re driving across the Highland Scenic Highway or if you just happen to find yourself in the area! If you have any little science whizzes in the family, they also offer STEM programs for kids, and I can’t think of a cooler place to learn about science and space. Except for maybe, well, you know, space. 

What do you think? Is there anyone else out there???

And if you have been to Green Bank, let me know what you thought about your own visit! I hope you enjoyed it as much as we did!

Plan Your Own Visit

Where to Go

When to Go

  • The observatory is in a rural area, so this is a trip that would be best taken oustide of those snowy winter months. This part of the country is especially beautiful in the fall, though, so it would be a great place to visit during peak foliage season!
  • The general public tour is offered daily in the summertime but they are closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays throughout the rest of the year.
  • The SETI tour that we did and their other specialty tours are offered less frequently. Check out their schedule for more details.

Tips for Visiting

  • Green Bank Observatory is located in the National Radio Free Quiet Zone. You will not have cell service on your way in and out of here, so be sure to print out or save directions in advance.
  • The telescopes at Green Bank are highly sensitive, and you cannot use any electronics during the tour. Leave FitBits or other BlueTooth devices in your car. Turn your phone into airplane mode when you arrive, and turn it and any other electronics off before boarding the tour bus.
  • The public tour at Green Bank does not offer access inside the telescope control rooms. If you would like more of a behind-the-scenes look, you’ll need to sign up for one of their specialty tours, like the SETI tour we did.
  • The onsite cafe makes a lot of food from scratch, and we actually had a really fantastic salad there. If you need a snack, I would definitely recommend the cafe!
  • If you want to take photos on the tour, be sure to bring an old school (i.e. non-digital) film camera. If you don’t have one, you can bring a disposable camera or buy one in the gift shop. No cell phone pics are permitted once you go through the gates to where the telescopes are housed.
  • Keep an open mind and bring all your questions about what might exist outside planet Earth and our galaxy!
  • And to learn more about this history of Green Bank and some of their discoveries, check out this great timeline!

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