Life in the “Quiet Zone”

By Matthew Wolford, Megan Sperling and Bevin Fletcher

A platform in the NRAO site in Green Bank, W.Va., is the closest that digital cameras are allowed to get to the world’s largest fully steerable telescope. The Green Bank Telescope sits within a 13,000 square mile “Quiet Zone” regulated by the FCC, and provides many jobs to the surrounding community.

Inside the gates of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, scientists are drawn to the area to conduct research using the world’s largest, fully steerable radio telescope, but outside in the small town of Green Bank, W.Va., people are drawn to a simpler way of life.

Driving South on Route 92 the Green Bank Telescope appears as an immense structure of white among the line of green trees; almost rising out of nowhere.  Rivaling the mountains that surround it, the GBT looks almost alien amongst the wildlife. Even with the shield of pine trees around the telescope, it is still struck by lightning four or five times a year.

The town of Green Bank is located in Pocahontas County, which houses two states forests along with the Monongahela National Forest.  This is part of the reason why the area was chosen for the facility.  Trees help to block out some of the interference caused by radio waves.

Located within the National Radio Quiet Zone, people in Green Bank must forgo technology that many take for granted, such as using cellphones or a remote-controlled garage door openers.

The Federal Communications Commission created the “Quiet Zone” to protect the airwaves around the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.  This restricted air space also helps to protect GBT from radio interference that could potentially change the results of scientific experiments.

Devices that transmit radio signals are not permitted within the 13,000 square-mile-zone, as any rogue waves can interfere with the telescope. This includes cellphones, wireless Internet and any other devices known to transmit radio waves, though microwaves are allowed.

The official website of the NRAO describes their establishment as a contemporary group of radio telescope facilities that are used by the international scientific community, regardless of their affiliation.  A scientist must send a proposal to the NRAO for use of their telescopes at a designated time.

According to Stephen Royer, a tour guide at NRAO, the GBT has the ability to receive information from 1, 5, or even 10 billion light years away.  The telescope is millions of times more sensitive than television dishes.

Due to this sensitivity, he said that things as simple as weeds growing on electric fences can cause interference with the telescope.

“We create a lot of gadgets ourselves…it’s a long way to Radio Shack,” said Royer.  There are around 100 to 110 employees currently employed at the observatory, most being West Virginians.

Royer said that Pocahontas County has fewer people in it today than it did in the ‘50s, although the NRAO has provided many jobs for the people of Green Bank and the surrounding area.

Most people in the town work for the NRAO Board of Education, or Snow Shoe, a ski resort about 18 miles away, says Mospan.

Driving along Green Bank’s main road one can expect to be met with waves from fellow drivers passing by.  This doesn’t mean that they know you personally; that’s just the way the town is, says Arnold “Arnie” Stewart.

Stewart, who has lived in Green Bank for the last five years, retired there after countless summers spent on his grandparents’ farm during his childhood.  He said that his favorite aspect of Green Bank is the “wide-open spaces and quiet space.”  Another positive aspect, according to Stewart, is that “it’s a cheap place to live” compared to the Chesapeake Bay area where he had been living .

Stewart believes many people are attracted to the small town because of the regulations on radio waves. He said that he knows of seven or eight people living in the area who claim to be radiosensitive.  Such people believe that they have negative side effects from radio wave exposure from things such as cellphone towers.

Stewart says those people feel as if they are being pricked with tiny needles when close to radio waves, some also claim hair loss is a side effect.

According to Stewart, to make up for the absence of cellphones, people in the town use two-way hand radios to communicate.  A license has to be acquired to use these radios and he said over 100 people have licenses, but he only knows of eight people who actively use their radios.

Jane Mospan, one of the two librarians employed at the local library, grew up in Green Bank, but lived in the Washington DC area for many years before returning 30 years ago.  “[Green Bank] is quiet and I like the people,” said Mospan.

“You sneeze here, the whole town hears it,” said Mospan.  The town is very close-knit and is an environment where everyone knows everyone.

Green Bank is a hard town for teenagers and young adults to live in because there are not many part-time jobs available.  Green Bank is not right for everyone though. Stewart said that the winters can be harsh, with the temperature sometimes reaching -10 degrees.

One way the people of Green Bank get through the cold winters is by immersing themselves in art.  Another aspect of the community that Stewart unveiled was their love of art.  Stewart gave a “private tour” of the Green Bank Art Center.

Residents don’t hibernate during Green Bank’s cold winters; they are kept busy with painting, pottery, jewelry making and a number of other artisan trades. The pieces are then sold in a shared artisan co-op.

“We keep busy in the winter,” said Stewart.  He proudly showed his jewelry, made by hand with fresh-water pearls.  The building was filled with paintings, jewelry and pottery made from clay.  Stewart showcased many works by a local artist, Kathryn C. Gillispie, and said that she has a master’s degree in clay and teaches classes for beginners.

Although the observatory’s main function is scientific research, it has also become a resource for members of the surrounding community.

The NRAO provides a daycare facility for the parents who work for the observatory or around the local area, has hosted the high school prom in the basement of the science center and even held a graduation ceremony for a single student; at which the majority of the town attended.

It’s easy to see how the GBT is not only a structure for science, but has also built an entire community around it’s existence.  Although the citizens of Green Bank do not have cellphones, WiFi, or remote control door openers, they have something more.  They have a sense of community that is created by the GBT.


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