Listening for aliens 13 billion lights years away means you have to be very, very quiet.
A glance at the town of Green Bank, West Virginia might not reveal anything off. But hang out for a minute or two and you’ll notice something strange: how quiet it is.
That’s because no one in this tiny town (pop. 145) has a TV, an internet connection or even a smartphone. In fact — if you live here — it’s illegal to use these devices.
That’s because the town — which is nestled in the Allegheny Mountains, just a few miles from the Kentucky border — is home to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which operates the world’s biggest fully-steerable radio telescope.
Here she is:
Scientists use it to identify asteroids, look for aliens (seriously) and gather data on all kinds of other stuff up in outer space. The researchers are listening to “exploding galaxies at the edge of the universe,” signals that are so far away that “it’s about a billionth of a billionth of a millionth of a watt,” CNN puts it.
The 17-million-pound telescope works by detecting radio waves from bodies in space that don’t emit enough light to be otherwise visible to humans. It can reportedly see 85% of the celestial sphere.
This is why electronic devices — including garage openers and microwaves — aren’t allowed in Green Bank. The radio waves these gadgets use would interfere with the telescope’s readings.
Green Bank is inside the National Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000-square-mile swathe of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. Don’t even think of using your phone here — there are surveillance trucks that know when someone is using a phone, and you could be arrested for doing so.
So what, exactly, are the scientists at the Green Bank Observatory looking for? In 2014, the telescope discovered that a hydrogen cloud was rocketing toward the Milky Way at 150 miles per second. Thankfully for us, the cloud will take around 30 million years to get here.
Green Bank is known as “The Quietest Town In America.” Its residents came up with another nickname for the Green Bank Telescope, or GBT: “the Great Big Thing.”
Sadly, the Great Big Thing might soon be a thing of the past. The National Science Foundation, which paid for the development of the telescope and owns the land it sits on, said in November that it was rethinking the future of the telescope, including the possibility of shutting it down.
If the NSF does decide to take the Great Big Thing apart, life in Green Bank will change forever.