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Part of being very far away from the rest of the universe is that the signals are very faint, so sometimes you need a nice, quiet spot to listen from.

Hosted by: Caitlin Hofmeister
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https://doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000121
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF02253868
https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci5030357
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2017.05.037
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SciShow Space is supported by Brilliant.org [INTRO ♪].

If you ever find yourself traveling through the eastern United States, you might discover a spot that seems like it’s stuck in the past. In a lot of ways, it looks just like all the land around it, with farms and green, rolling hills.

But something is very different. In parts of this region, which stretches for more than 33,000 square kilometers, you’re not allowed to use cell phones or Wi-Fi. And in some places, you can’t even drive a gasoline-powered car.

It’s called the National Radio Quiet Zone, or NRQZ, and it’s more than just a peaceful getaway. By sacrificing some of the comforts of modern living, the people living there contribute to some of the most important work in astronomy. The NRQZ was established in 1958 to protect both the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and the U.

S. Navy’s Sugar Grove radio facilities. It’s huge—larger than the whole state of Maryland—and straddles the Virginia and West Virginia borders, catching an itty bitty part of western Maryland along the way.

It’s surrounded by the Allegheny mountains, which form a natural shield against outside radio wave interference. And from the city of Green Bank, which is basically in the middle of the NRQZ, you can also get a great view of the Milky Way. That makes it an awesome place for radio astronomy—for studying the stars, galaxies, and other objects that emit radio waves.

That is… unless there are a bunch of other radio sources near your ultra-sensitive telescopes. There’s where the NRQZ’s technology restrictions come in, especially in the region closest to Green Bank. We’re talking no cell phones in this area, no Wi-Fi….

Even things you wouldn’t think could be sources for interference can be a problem, like electric blankets with damaged cords. Which did happen once, by the way. If you’re actually at the observatory, you can’t even use gasoline-powered vehicles.

Spark plugs could also cause interference, so it’s diesel engines only. Of course, people living in the NRQZ still have things like cable, landlines, and broadband Internet. “Radio Quiet” doesn’t mean “no technology”. But it’s probably still a simpler lifestyle than you or I are used to, and these days it mainly exists to protect the Green Bank Observatory.

The observatory has had a lot of telescopes over the years, from the world’s first fully automated one to a 20-meter telescope currently run by the University of North Carolina. For decades, it also had three telescopes operating in tandem as the Green Bank Interferometer. Its success led to the creation of the Very Large Array in New Mexico, star of the 1997 film Contact.

Fine, co-star. Right now, though, the most important telescope there was constructed at the turn of the century:. The Robert C.

Byrd Green Bank Telescope, or GBT. It replaced the observatory’s former telescope, called the 300-Foot Telescope, which collapsed due to a structural failure in 1988. The GBT is the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope, measuring almost 150 meters tall, with a dish 100 meters wide that’s capable of observing 85% of its celestial hemisphere.

It’s so big that the dish had to be made out of over 2000 aluminum panels; they’re individually operated to compensate for the dish sagging under its own weight. The telescope also has receivers cooled to nearly -270°C to minimize interference from thermal radiation. All that gives the GBT a sensitivity equivalent to a billionth of a billionth of a millionth of a Watt.

It can detect energies less than that of a single snowflake falling on Earth! Over the years, GBT and Green Bank’s other telescopes have contributed a lot to the field of astronomy. Like, back in 1968, the 300-Foot Telescope discovered that pulsars—those fast-spinning, seemingly flashing points of light—are actually the remnants of supernovas!

And less than a decade later, the Green Bank Interferometer detected the super powerful, point-like radio source at the center of our galaxy known as Sagittarius A*. Yeah. The supermassive black hole.

That Sagittarius A*. In 1969, Green Bank’s 43-meter telescope even discovered the first complex molecule found in space: formaldehyde. Later, it also found a bunch of others, including cyanoacetylene—a possible precursor to nucleic acids, the stuff in DNA.

I mean, we definitely didn’t discover DNA in the center of the galaxy or anything, but finding molecules like these reveals the kinds of conditions these complex molecules need to form. We used to think they were pickier—that chemistry like this couldn’t take place in outer space, but we were wrong. There’s also another thing we were wrong about: the amount of stuff out there.

Specifically, while tracking blobs of hydrogen found in spiral galaxies, the 300-Foot Telescope found that a galaxy’s outer regions spin just about as fast as their middle regions. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but under our current understanding of physics, that doesn’t happen. Just like the more distant planets in our solar system take more time to go around the Sun, the outer blobs should be going a lot slower than observations revealed.

There had to be extra, invisible—or dark—matter out there! This wasn’t the first evidence of dark matter, but it was important follow-up. And these are just some of the discoveries made thanks to the NRQZ and the telescopes that live there.

We’ve talked about the major ones, but there are still tons more. There are links in the description if you’re interested. One thing is for sure, though:.

Even though these super detailed observations have required some sacrifice, they’ve been totally worth it for our understanding of the universe. And most people seem to like living there, too. We have a co-worker at SciShow who gets a little weepy at parades because they love to see people working together, and that’s how I feel thinking about the citizens of Green Bank.

It takes an incredible amount of thought and commitment to plan something like the NRQZ. I am not a civil engineer but I love thinking about how all the things we take for granted in a city come together. Brilliant.org has a course on physics of the everyday, with a section on Infrastructure that I wanted to check out.

I took the quiz on Traffic, which I was excited about because of the SciShow episode on traffic jams. I knew the answer to the first question because I helped film that video, but then the quiz continues to dig deeper into the math of traffic flow and the quiz got harder ... but also more fun because I was applying what I was learning as I went. The Brilliant Infrastructure course has quizzes on everything from fluoridated water to skyscrapers, so I learned a lot just playing around on the site.

To learn more about this or any of the other courses Brilliant offers, go to Brilliant.org/SciShowSpace to sign up for free. And right now, Brilliant is offering the first 200 people to use that link 20% off the annual premium subscription. So, as long as you’re not sitting in traffic right now or using Wi-Fi in the National Radio Quiet Zone, check it out! [OUTRO ♪].