A Night at Green Bank Observatory

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A Night at Green Bank Observatory


Jordan Miller, with Patrick Herron, SPS Reporters, Cleveland State University


PhysCon 2022 attendees gather in front of the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope at Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. Photo courtesy of Brendan Diamond.

The day before the 2022 Physics Congress officially began, a small group of undergraduate astronomers and physicists gathered in Washington, DC. We were eagerly awaiting a bus that would take us to Green Bank Observatory (GBO) in West Virginia, home to the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope. 

The drive to the observatory took about four hours, but seeing the Appalachian Mountains dressed in full fall colors made the trip more enjoyable. As we pulled into the observatory parking lot, we could see the mammoth structure that is the Green Bank Telescope. 

After dropping our things in the dorms where we'd be sleeping that night, we walked over to the Green Bank Science Center for dinner. There we met Sue Ann Heatherly, GBO's senior education officer. She gave a presentation on the history of Green Bank and taught us how to read a sky map of declination and right ascension. We would need this information to steer the smaller, 40-foot telescope we would have access to that night. 

Then Sue Ann split us into two groups. One would explore the center exhibits while the other walked to the 40-foot telescope and learned to operate it; then we’d switch. Our group explored the center first. No matter how far into a science degree or career you are, playing with physics demos is always fun! We also went on a scavenger hunt. Someone had hidden ten toys shaped like spherical cows around the grounds, and whoever found the most would win a prize. After about an hour of exploring it was our turn to walk to the telescope. 

As we moved away from the Science Center, the moon and the stars in the Milky Way were all that illuminated our path. About a mile—and a few sore necks—later, we arrived. Sue Ann escorted us into the underground control room, and we saw walls covered with drawings and messages from former researchers and students who have collected data there. We learned to steer, monitor, and collect data with the telescope by tuning it as you would an AM/FM radio. By the end of the training, we had “gathered our own little photons, and gave them purpose,” as Sue Ann put it. 

When Sue Ann left for the evening, she told us that we had free rein of the telescope and the Visitor Center all night. Everything was ours to play with and explore. She left us with the keys to a truck and told us to have fun! None of us expected this freedom, and we made a pact to stay up as late as possible and collect as much data as we could. By then it was about 9:30 p.m.

We collected hydrogen spectra from galaxies, quasars, and other random spots in the Milky Way, eventually taking a break to search for more spherical cows and admire the night sky from outside the control room. We bonded with other Physics Congress students from across the United States, talking about our college experiences and future goals. At one point, we found ourselves lying on the cold ground staring up at the night sky, admiring a view of the Milky Way that most of us had never seen before. We finally went to bed sometime in the early morning. We don’t know the exact time since we couldn’t have our phones—cell service causes too much radio interference. 

A few hours later we woke up, a little sleep-deprived, and headed to breakfast. Today was the day we would experience the famous Green Bank Telescope. We split into small groups and paired with researchers, engineers, and technicians who worked on or with the telescope. They were our tour guides as we climbed the 485-foot-tall instrument. 

We saw the telescope’s control rooms, which contained aisles of electrical panels and complicated wiring responsible for pointing the telescope and collecting radio signals from distant galaxies. We took an elevator to the dish level, where we were able to get a better sense of just how big the telescope really is—the dish is 100 meters in diameter. The view from the top of the telescope was almost as impressive as the telescope itself. 

As we descended, our time at Green Bank was coming to an end. We boarded the bus that would take us back to the Physics Congress, which would officially start later that day. We already knew that regardless of what else took place during the rest of the weekend, the visit to Green Bank would be our favorite part of the trip. 

The 2025 Physics and Astronomy Congress is coming!

Like the 2022 Congress, the 2025 Congress will feature one-of-a-kind tours, amazing speakers, and unforgettable experiences for physics and astronomy undergraduates. For details visit sigmapisigma.org/sigmapisigma/congress/2025.

October 30 – November 1, 2025 | Denver, Colorado


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