50th Anniversary Celebration of the NRAO 140-Foot Radio Telescope


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An early photo of the 140 foot Green Bank, WV radio telescope.

National Radio Astronomy Observatory

Ordinarily, one might expect a reference to the “140-foot telescope” would contain insufficient information to pinpoint a specific instrument.

In reality, this is not the case.

There is only one historically important 140-foot radio telescope in existence.

Its history is unique. The 140-foot Green Bank National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) radio telescope was the pioneer astrochemistry instrument.

Oddly, I worked 23 years for NRAO and I often traveled to Green Bank during that time, yet I had never seen the famous telescope before this year!

Once-in-a-Lifetime Event

This year, NRAO sent retired employees (I am one) invitations to the 50th anniversary celebration of the 140-foot scope, located in Pocahontas County, West Virginia.

The author received these commemorative coins during this visit. Copyright image by Vincent Summers, all rights reserved.

It was an opportunity I would not miss – to see familiar faces I’d not seen in years, to enjoy a drive through one of the most beautiful states in the country, and to see what I’d missed all these years. The trip would seem much like a family reunion.

The One That Got Away

Following two background talks, NRAO bussed us to the site. There we enjoyed a small lunch and toured the telescope. I particularly enjoyed two or three stories the old-timers told. One was a woman who told us her husband had worked at NRAO. He’d been on the 300-foot telescope in 1988, just 5 hours before the whole structure fell to the ground – a narrow escape, indeed!

One retired mechanic told me his assignment for 33 years had been to maintain the 140-foot telescope with all its pumps and mechanical apparatus. Like a proud parent, he said he was able to diagnose the device based on the noises the machinery made. He then pointed to a hearing aid and said that was how he had lost some of his hearing.

Electroforming is a process for forming metal. In electroforming, metal atoms deposit onto the mandrel through the flow of a DC electric current. Image by Nathan Sargeant

My NRAO Story

I discussed how I was asked if I could produce a helium tank electroform. An electroform such as NRAO produces is a heavy metal plate grown from an electroplating bath atop an expendable aluminum mandrel (something like a photographic negative). The mandrel is then dissolved away, leaving the positive electroform. This particular electroform would have to be done perfectly; it could not be patched.

Even though I’d never attempted making such a device before, I answered in the affirmative.

Surprisingly, I did accomplish the task. However, the electroform possessed two defects. Amazingly, almost unbelievably, the tank was still usable – because the defects were located in the two spots where we needed to drill holes.

But this device is not one of the pieces I developed that was put to use in connection with the 140-foot telescope. There were many, many jobs I was involved with in my 23 years at the NRAO that were put to use in a host of telescopes and other equipment. Some of those, I feel sure, were put into use on this history-making instrument. Which ones were they? I suppose I’ll never know.

Historic Telescope Tour: The End Draws Near

After the luncheon, but before once again boarding our buses, someone took a group photograph of those attending.

After our return, we viewed two video presentations related to the construction of the 140-foot. One of those videos is available on YouTube (Check the ‘Resources’ section of this article for this video) The other is not.

However, there are a third and a fourth video – my videos! They are short, but give a current look of the size and perspective of the historical telescope that gave rise to the scientific study we know as the field of astrochemistry.

Homeward Bound

The event was over, the time to return home had arrived. My son and I returned to our car and prepared for the 2 hour 22 minute ride home. Would the growing clouds turn to rain before we arrived? More pressingly, how did we feel? Was the occasion worth the trip? Even my son agreed, indeed it was.

It was not exciting, as a trip to a theme park might be. Rather, it was satisfying, not just from the perspective of seeing the telescope, but also in enjoying some time together, seeing the beauties of nature, and in considering the better side of Society and of Man.

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