- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 27, 2001

GREEN BANK, W.Va. — Rising out of the mist in this Appalachian valley, the stark white disc towers above the countryside, looking more like a flying saucer than the most advanced listening device in the world.
Taller than the Statue of Liberty, the Robert C. Byrd Telescope shares the valley with a half-dozen other white discs, all pointing toward the cosmos.
The Byrd telescope and its companions are part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which collects radio waves and uses them to study galaxies, pulsars, planets, asteroids and forming stars.
Tourists as well as visiting scientists are welcome to visit this observatory, about 190 miles east of Charleston, W.Va., and 230 miles southwest of Washington.
"It's pretty cool," says Katie Aguilera, who recently led a group of 12- and 13-year-olds looking for an adventure on a rainy day. "It feels like we are walking into Star Wars."

The main attraction is the Byrd telescope. With its 2.3-acre disc, it is the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope.
The 16-million-pound device can be pointed with an accuracy of one arcsecond. That's equivalent to the width of a human hair seen from six feet away.
The telescope, which cost $79 million and took nearly a decade to build, was named after West Virginia's senior senator for his efforts to win congressional approval for its funding. The 485-foot telescope replaced a 300-foot-tall model that collapsed in 1988 after 26 years of use. Officials blamed the failure on metal fatigue.
Although it was commissioned last August, a series of shakedown tests was stopped in April after it was discovered that the telescope's base plate was not fully secured. Bolts that held the plate were starting to snap. Testing resumed July 20.
Before it was taken off line, observers used it to map an asteroid and worked with the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to map the surface of Venus. Radar signals bounced off the planet from Arecibo were collected and recorded in Green Bank.
Smaller telescopes built on-site after the observatory was established in the late 1950s also have been used for important research.
Astronomer Frank Drake used one in 1960 for Project Ozma, his search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The project got its name after the mythical land of Oz. Although Mr. Drake found no evidence of extraterrestrial life, ongoing research elsewhere uses the principles he established.
Another telescope works in conjunction with three others around the world to track Halca, a small radio telescope Japan launched into orbit in 1997 to study black holes.
This array of radio telescopes is in Green Bank because the mountains around the Deer Creek Valley offer a natural buffer against Earth-generated radio and television signals.
Congress also established the National Radio Quiet Zone to protect Green Bank and a U.S. Navy radio receiving facility in Sugar Grove, about 40 miles away.
Radio traffic in the 13,000-square-mile zone is limited. Anyone who wants to use a radio frequency within the zone including those who operate public and private mobile signal systems, wireless communications, maritime, aviation, radio, cable and satellite communication systems must coordinate with the observatory.
There are no special restrictions for observatory visitors, other than that they cannot drive to the telescopes. Only diesel-powered tour buses and staff cars are allowed that close because the ignition systems on other vehicles interfere with the telescopes' reception.

The Green Bank observatory is one of several operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which is part of the National Science Foundation and operated by Associated Universities Inc. The others include the Very Large Array near Socorro, N.M., and the Very Long Baseline Array, a group of 10 dishes spread across the nation.
"I think people are genuinely interested in astronomy and what's out there. It's a very accessible science compared to other fields," says Deputy Site Director Richard Prestage. "If we get kids to come through there and they end up being astronomers, that's a great thing.
"We do genuinely believe it is part of our mission to let the public know what we are doing."
The visitor center is open and hourly guided tours are available from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily between Memorial Day and Labor Day and on weekends in September and October. Group tours can be arranged at other times.
The observatory is open for self-guided walking tours any time.
Between tours, visitors can examine a few hands-on exhibits in a cramped room or buy star- and science-oriented T-shirts, posters, books and children's science projects in the gift shop.
Construction of a new visitor's center will begin this fall. When complete, the center will be open year-round and will feature larger exhibits and classrooms for students and teachers who attend the observatory's summer science workshops, says Sue Ann Heatherly, who runs the observatory's educational programs.
An $8 million NASA appropriation will pay for the center and a new dorm for visiting students.
"It takes me back to my childhood with Buck Rogers," said Huntington, W. Va., resident Max Parks on a recent tour.
His son-in-law, Ken Mahaffey, says, "To me, it's pretty impressive that we have something like this in West Virginia. You always think of technology being something outside the state."
Mr. Mahaffey, a Barboursville, W.Va., native who lives in Atlanta, adds, "Unfortunately, West Virginia gets the rap of being a coal-mine state."
Sarah Watson, 14, of Huntington seems so pleased to be here she was jumping up and down with excitement.
"I've been interested in the solar system since the fourth grade," she says breathlessly.

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