One of the more impromptu parts of our vacation was a realization that without going too far out of the way (adding only about an extra hour of driving to DC) we could hit up the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Greenbank, West Virginia.
The NRAO is home to the world’s largest steerable radio telescope. The surface of which is over 2 acres in size. Beyond just the big dish there are a number of other large scale radio observatories, some run by the observatory directly, others leased out to Universities. Because of an act of Congress, the NRAO has sole licensing authority for commercial wireless in a 100 mile radius (“We’re the reason your cell phone doesn’t work right now”), and complete authority over all types of wireless in a 10 mile range. If your microwave goes hay wire and starts emitting radio signals, they’ve got a truck outfitted with antennas which will help them find your house. They will then attempt to fix it, or will replace it if it’s unfixable.
We managed to arrive just as the 4pm tour was starting. We got a great presentation inside the main visitors center, then a tour of the telescope grounds in our diesel powered van. Nothing with spark plugs is allowed within 1 mile of the Greenbank Telescope, as it would generate enough radio noise to mess up experiments. I also have no digital camera pictures within that radius, as the stray RF from a digital camera (both being on and taking pictures) inside the 1 mile zone will show up in the telescope data. They have an observation platform at 1 mile just for that purpose. Our tour guide was pretty awesome, telling lots of great stories about the challenges of running super sensitive radio experiments.
Back at the visitors center they had an amazingly good display on the Science of Electromagnetic Radiation. Including displays in IR, Spectrographs, investigations into Pulsars, and many other great exhibits. We spent nearly an hour wandering around there.
This was definitely a great stop. By it’s nature, it’s pretty far away from everything, but the hills of West Virginia are beautiful, so it’s a nice scenic drive to get there. We might go back in the future, as there is some great camping / hiking in that area of WV.