In Green Bank, a town without WiFi, TV or cellphones, scientists are looking for aliens.
A small town in West Virginia called Green Bank is unlike any other in the United States. It has a population of only 150, and is dominated by the presence of the massive Green Bank Telescope. What makes the town truly unique though, is that it lies in the middle of the National Radio Quiet Zone, a 33,669 square kilometer area wherein certain transmissions are not allowed. In the zone, and especially in the area around Green Bank Telescope (GBT), your mobile phone is useless, you will not get a TV signal and you can’t have strong wi-fi.
The National Radio Quiet Zone is home not only to the GBT, but also to Sugar Grove, a US intelligence agency outpost. Transmissions in this area are prohibited because they could disturb equipment set up at these two sites and in the surrounding hills. The GBT in particular needs all that quiet for a very interesting reason: Among other research tasks, the telescope is actively looking for aliens. “On the off chance we do get that hugely lucky signal, when we look in the right place, at the right frequency. When we get that… can you imagine what that’s going to do to humankind?” says Mike Holstine, business manager at Green Bank Observatory.
Apart from its value as a research facility, Green Bank also attracts a range of unique characters, who seek out the town to get away from our otherwise connected world. You’ll find people with “electromagnetic hypersensitivity”, a psychological disorder which makes people think they’re allergic to electromagnetic radiation. Other residents simply feel as if our digital world is making them feel trapped. The town may not get to enjoy this peace and quiet for long however, because the Green Bank Telescope might be shut down soon.
The Green Bank observatory dominates the landscape
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is currently discussing whether they can justify the expense of keeping the GBT open, especially with other telescopes, such as Chile’s Atacama Large Millimeter Array serving similar purposes. Shutting down the telescope would mean that a few of the heavier restrictions placed on Green Bank’s transmissions could be lifted. The BBC asked local radio hosts Chuck and Heather Niday whether a closure would lead to the locals wanting to lift their transmission ban. The response was reluctant, but stated that regardless of how many of the kids in the town start using Snapchat, it wouldn’t change the close-knit nature of the community.
The NSF’s plans to close the telescope won’t mean a swift death however. The foundation will be gradually pulling funding bit by bit, and allowing Holstine the opportunity to find private investors to keep the telescope running. So far, the private investor strategy seems to be working. The Breakthrough Listen project, a Silicon Valley based venture focused on finding alien life, is planning to spend $100 million over the next ten years in order to map out our one million closest stars. The project has agreed to help fund the telescope.