Places to Go (Vacation) - Discover the "Invisible Universe" at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) (Green Bank, WV)


(The last pictures was taken with one of the kid's prisms, which I borrowed for awhile).

This is one of the coolest tours we've ever done, perhaps because I had no preconceived expectations (as someone who loves to plan and research everything, I rarely have the pleasure of random adventuring). Several of the world's largest telescopes are located in Green Bank, WV (right next to Snowshoe Ski Resort). Who knew? Actually, this location makes a lot of sense - the mountains, combined with low population density, have allowed NASA to create a National Radio Quiet Zone in the area (yup, this is why Snowshoe ski resort has awful cellphone reception), which keeps the telescopes protected from interfering radio waves.

In particular, Green Bank's largest telescope (the property contains several) is the most technically advanced single-dish radio telescope in the world. Its 110-meter by 100-meter dish boasts more than two acres of area for collecting faint radio waves from the Universe. Weighing 17 million pounds, the GBT is also one of the world's largest moving structures on land. The GBT is a leader in the scientific study of pulsars, dense neutron stars that serve as laboratories in which astronomers study the physics of extreme states of matter and enormous magnetic fields. The GBT can also detect the fingerprints of atoms and molecules far into the distant Universe, yielding new knowledge about star formation, the structure and motions of gas in galaxies, and Nature's fundamental constants.

If this sounds boring, I can assure you that the tour is not. First of all, we visited an old-school 1970s-auditorium, where we watched a short film summarizing NRAO's research and mission. After the movie, a tour guide conducted LIVE experiments involving liquid nitrogen (to demonstrate how cooling devices can help with interference). And who doesn't love liquid nitrogen? The tour guide also conducted some other experiments involving digital cameras and radio interference. All the children received free prisms. Like Xmas.

Eventually everyone boarded a bus, where we toured huge fields full of extremely large telescopes. HUGE football field sized telescopes. And, for no logical reason, this made me feel incredibly important. The same feeling that I get while watching movies involving the FBI or CIA, like "wow, this is where the action is." Does everyone feel like this or did I just let my inner-dork shine a little too bright? Our guide was really knowledgeable and answered a ton of questions, but I just couldn't get over how BIG everything was.

Eventually, we arrived back at the visitors' center, where a decent-sized interactive science center contains displays and activities explaining NRAO's research and astronomy in general. The kids had a great time exploring (we spent a good 30 or 40 minutes checking everything out).
surprisingly fascinating. Unfortunately, the sequester is threatening to shut the operation down, but they seem to be working through it (at least temporarily) by renting out telescopes to Russia (is this really a good idea?).

If you're ever in the area, I HIGHLY suggest a tour (on the downside, as digital cameras cause interference with the telescopes, photography is VERY limited and not allowed at all in most areas). Tickets cost $6 for adults and $3.50 for children 7-12 (younger children are free). The NRAO also hosts various events such as sky-viewing nights and family days. Click here for more information.


Science is fun. Really.


  1. This looks soooo cool. And I love the first photo.

  2. Ok can I be an honorary member of your family?? You guys go to the coolest places! My inner Carl Sagan-loving astronomer is loving this!



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