Rising 485 feet out of the deep linear valleys of the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) facilitates over 6,500 hours of astronomical observations per year - contributing to our understanding of the cosmos on a mind boggling scale. The GBT's raw statistics detailing the structure's dimensions and ability to receive radio waves with unprecedented accuracy is also tricky to comprehend. For example - the 2.3 acres of the telescope's collecting area is perfectly smooth because 2000+ 'queen bed sized' panels adjust the surface to an accuracy of just 260 micros (5 human hairs). Pretty amazing for a structure weighing over 17 millions pounds!
I became fascinated in the Green Bank Observatory when I visited the facility to make a joint BBC Radio 4 and photographic series called *Welcome to the Quiet Zone* to investigate the community that live and work in the now infamous National Radio Quiet Zone, created in 1958 to protect the Green Bank Observatory's naturally low electromagnetic environment.
Ever since my encounter with the GBT's metallic colossus, I've kept up to date with its activities and a recently published report about 'FRB 121102' caught my eye and prompted me to share a few more close up images of the telescope's more hidden mechanisms.
It is worth noting that I explored and photographed the structure on 3 occasions during the GBT's weekly servicing schedule. Access is extremely limited and very rarely granted outside of a small, dedicated team of service engineers and a small posse of scientists who apply to view their research structure up close and personal.
The GBT's 24/7 movements regularly make headlines for astronomical discoveries in the dedicated science community but seldom breaks out into the general media (who clearly struggle with the concept of whether science is sexy). However one particular set of observations has the story 'hook' that popular reporting requires and that hook is potential evidence of intelligent alien existence.
Breakthrough Listen is an initiative founded 2 years ago by cosmologist Stephen Hawking & internet investor Yuri Milner to find signs of intelligent life in the universe. One of the areas the initiative concentrates on is evidence of 'Fast Radio Bursts' from objects in deep space. FRBs are some of the universe’s strangest phenomena - creating brief, bright pulses of radio emission from distant galaxies and are attributed to everything from black holes to extraterrestrial intelligence. However FRBs have never emitted from their source origin more than once, until now. Utilising newly installed specialist receiving equipment on the GBT, a team of scientists have discovered a previously detected FRB repeating itself with 15 radio emission bursts from the same location.
*FRB 121102: Detection at 4 - 8 GHz band with Breakthrough Listen backend at Green Bank* is the official announcement on the Astronomer's Telegram on August 29th 2017. News outlets jumped on this journal headline with extra terrestrial reports filed in The Guardian, National Geographic, FOX News. The Times of India even profiled Dr. Vishal Gajjar, the UC Berkeley Postdoctoral Researcher (born in Gujarat, western India) who made the discovery after analysing over 400TB of data gathered over a 5 hour period in late August.
Located in a dwarf galaxy 3 billion light years away, FRB 121102 was first detected with the Parkes Telescope in Australia on Nov 2nd 2012 (hence the name) and although many other FRBs have been observed by several radio telescopes around the world, none have repeated their emissions. The GBT's unique ability to detect such a broad and high frequency range means that the resolution accuracy allows for far more detailed research into FRBs' origins and with FRB 112102 repeating its emissions, some in society secretly hope that extra terrestrial life is indeed trying to communicate with us!
Who says science isn't sexy?
When I was making Welcome to the Quiet Zone, the contentious issue of funding the Green Bank Observatory loomed large on the local community's mind, as federal financial support was rumoured to be withdrawn. In short, the observatory's future was at stake - along with many support jobs the community provides.
Although government funding has since been largely cut and associated NRAO administration dropped in late 2016, the observatory is now able to attract private funding and research opportunities, so the recent headline grabbing success of the Breakthrough Listen experiments, their new business model will hopefully secure long time security for the GBT and the observatory's other telescopes. I wish the Green Bank Observatroy a bright future!
You can keep up to date with the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope's activities and observation schedules on Twitter @grnbnktelescope