Green Bank telescope celebrates 50 years of operation

Although most folks associate the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank with the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, there is another smaller telescope that once dominated the landscape and helped put Green Bank on the map. It’s the 140 foot radio telescope, still in operation after 50 years of searching the heavens.

A celebration of this milestone was held on October 13th with many of the original employees coming back to share memories and catch up with old friends. Astronomer Frank Ghigo recounted some of the history of the Green Bank site and the telescope.

“The observatory started in the mid 1950’s under this organization AUI, Associated Universities Incorporated,” he said, “and they set up a steering committee to make recommendations for the new radio observatory should be and what kind of instruments to build.”

Early recommendations from AUI were for a dish 600 feet in diameter, but those were later scaled down to 150 feet. Ghigo explains how it came to be a 140 ft telescope.

“Apparently AUI asked for a design for a 40 meter telescope, so the 150 foot turned into 40 meters; 40 meters is about 132 feet,” said Ghigo. “And then, an unidentified government official insisted that any US telescope had to be expressed in feet not meters so the 132 ft was rounded up to 140.”

The Green Bank site was dedicated in 1957 and they broke ground for the building of the 140 ft telescope in August 1958. The pedestal for the telescope was completed a year later, but the parts for the telescope proved to be harder to construct to the required tolerances which resulted in delays.

Those delays actually played a role in the construction of the original 300 ft telescope. Astronomers at Green Bank, fearing that the 140 would be seen as a boondoggle reached out to engineering firms to quickly build a large functioning telescope, in a short amount of time.

“It didn’t have to be as accurate as the 140 ft, it didn’t have to point everywhere in the sky, but let’s see if we can build a large structure quickly and it was in fact completed in under 2 years,” said Ghigo. “It did serve the purpose of making Green Bank a major center for radio astronomy.”

Ghigo said the 300 ft telescope saved the NRAO, securing the funding needed to keep going while construction of the 140 ft telescope continued. Multi-ton parts were shipped by rail to Bartow then delivered by truck to the site. The 140 was finally completed in 1965.

50th Anniversary of the 140 Ft Radio Telescope

50th Anniversary of the 140 Ft Radio Telescope

I caught up with Bob Vance in the control room of the 140. He started working at Green Bank in 1961, assigned to the first telescope on site, the 85 foot, also known as the Tatel telescope. Around 1963 he joined the computer group at Green Bank. When the computer group moved away, Vance elected to stay behind.

“And in ’64 or ’65, they moved to Charlottesville [Virginia],” he said, “I didn’t come here to move to Charlottesville so I went back to telescope operations. I went down to the 300 ft then Howard had me come here; spent about a year operating before we decided to computerize everything. I sat right here in this chair.”

“They got your name on that chair?”

“They should have,” said Vance, “I don’t think the chair we operated out of was this comfortable.”

“So what was that like in the early days?”

“Well, all the operation here was done manually when we first started,” said Vance. “We had to move the telescope, we had to start the data collection, had to do it all.”

As part of the celebration, Green Bank site director Dr. Karen O’Neil read a proclamation from West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin recognizing the contributions of the 140 ft to the field of astronomy. Then came the time for the Time Capsule buried on site in 1987, to be opened. As the items such as reference manuals, a group picture from 1987 and other items were passed around O’Neil read the plaque attached to the capsule.

“It says on this date a time capsule was buried under this plaque,” she said. “Please uncover it in 2012 on the 300 foot telescopes golden anniversary. Well unfortunately the 300 foot telescope only lasted three months beyond this time capsule and also in September of 2012 we were kind of worried about a few other things [like recommendations to defund the GBT] so we let this slide and figured the 50th birthday of the 140 was a good time to open it instead.”

The time capsule will be re-buried at the site of the 140ft telescope. And even after 50 years on the job, the 140 continues to be a valuable scientific instrument receiving data from the Russian-made RadioAstron satellite. It’s one of only two earth-based telescopes, the other one being in Moscow, that can receive and process the data from the satellite, according to information at the NRAO website.

Dr. O’Neil also announced that tours of the 140 will soon be added to the activities available to visitors at the Green Bank site.

Proclamation from West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin on the 50th Anniversary of the 140 Ft Telescope

Whereas this year marks the 50th Anniversary of the National Radio Astronomy’s iconic 140 foot radio telescope located at Green Bank, West Virginia and,

Whereas the 140 foot telescope was inaugurated in 1965, retired from routine observations in 2001, and remains the largest equatorially mounted telescope in the world and,

Whereas during its 36 years as one of the premiere instruments at Green Bank, the radio telescope helped to launch the fledgling field of astro-chemistry, revealed key details about the nature and composition of galaxies, invited insights into the potential for life elsewhere in the cosmos, and

Whereas, while no longer used for routine observations, the 140 foot telescope still supports astronomical research through its current mission as one of only two earth stations for the RadioAstron satellite, and

Whereas the 140 foot radio telescope is a West Virginia landmark of science and discovery, helped lay the cornerstone of modern astronomy, and is internationally recognized for its unprecedented design and contributions toward understanding of the universe,

Now therefore, be it resolved that I, Earl Ray Tomblin, Governor of the Great State of West Virginia, do hearby recognize the year 2015 as the 50th anniversary of the National Radio Astronomy’s 140 foot radio telescope and encourage all West Virginians to join me in celebrating this iconic radio telescope as one of astronomy’s trailblazing instruments.

Story By

Heather Niday

Heather is our Program Director and Traffic Manager. She started with Allegheny Mountain Radio as a volunteer deejay. She then joined the AMR staff in February of 2007. Heather grew up in the Richmond, Virginia, area and now lives in Arbovale, West Virginia with her husband Chuck. Heather is a wonderful flute player, and choir director for Arbovale UMC. You can hear Heather along with Chuck on Tuesday nights from 6 to 8pm as they host two hours of jazz on Something Different.

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