Photo: Satellite dish located in downtown Seneca Rocks, West Virginia

Going Off Source
Time away with SETI in West Virginia


14 October 1997

©copyright 1998 by Keith Cowing

Part 1:

Preface: Signal check

When SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Life) researchers come across a signal they suspect of being artificial in origin, they employ a series of tests to rule out terrestrial or natural explanations for the signal. One such test involves going "off source" - that is, swinging the listening device away from the specific star it was pointed at when the signal was detected. If the signal persists, then it is likely to be either of artificial terrestrial origin, or a natural emanation from a large portion of space. In either case, it is not likely the broadcast from an extraterrestrial civilization.

If however, the signal stops the moment the receiver goes of source, only to reappear once contact is reestablished, one's confidence in the possibility that someone is indeed out there moves up a notch. There are, of course, many more things to check, but this is one of the simplest ways to eliminate spurious signals.

After months of non-stop work, I really needed to go off source for a few days.

For the past several months I had been meaning to get out to Seneca Rocks, West Virginia to check in with the folks at the Gendarme Rock Climbing Shop. You see, I run their website, and I have been too busy to get out there - or "get vertical'" for quite some time. Just as this particular need to go out to West Virginia was becoming obvious, along came another reason: I needed to catch up with some SETI folks - and they were going to be in nearby Green Bank for a day or so, an hour's drive from Seneca Rocks. Two perfect excuses to escape the Washington DC metro area, and go off source.

Take Me Home Country Roads - No More

John Denver was killed in a plane crash off of Monterey, California yesterday. The moment I heard this, I flashed back to 1981, Edwards Air Force Base, and the landing of Columbia after the STS-1 mission. I was about 20 feet away from John Denver as the Columbia dropped onto the runway. There was no doubt that he was excited. Later, he and I would compare notes about our new Canon AE-1 cameras whose operation we were both trying to figure out.

As today would wear on, I'd read the local newspapers. Although he was not from here, John Denver had been adopted. The former governor of West Virginia noted that his song "Take me home country roads", although misrepresenting geography by placing the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains in West Virginia, had Nonetheless become a staple of weddings and funerals.

In curious simultaneity, was the fact that this date was also the 50th anniversary of Hamlin, West Virginia native Chuck Yeager's breaking of the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 rocket plane. Both stories received considerable prominence in the local press. So much for going off source and getting away from space. I gave thought to avoiding all forms of news media for a day or so.

That's what I did. I used these newspapers to light my campfire that night.

Downtown Seneca Rocks, West Virginia

The big deal in Seneca Rocks was the new traffic pattern at the intersection of routes 55 and 28 - er, "downtown". Change comes slowly here. Grudgingly, the locals admitted that it cut down on traffic accidents. Meanwhile the indoor climbing gym built in the shadow of a 1,000 foot high natural climbing site was losing money. Duh, I wonder why.

I spent the night at Seneca Shadows campground. No tent, just a sleeping bag. What a show. The cliffs of Seneca Rocks are oriented such that they catch a riotous array of colors as the sun sets. I got the full program. The damn-near full moon rose over the hills and proceeded to dominate the sky for the next 7 hours or so. On a dark night, Seneca is a prime spot for viewing stars, meteorites, and satellites. This night, with the Moon all ablaze, the sightings were similar to light-polluted DC: few and far between.

Nonetheless, the surrounding countryside was alit with the Moon's bright, but color-lacking, light. Orion appeared rather quickly, hinting at the closeness of Winter. Enough stars - and satellites shone forth to make the view something quite marvelous to fall asleep underneath. This in itself was worth the trip. I was in the middle of an almost empty campground surrounded by only a few late season climbers whose fires had long since died out. The sky was mine.

Gimme Coffee

My fancy backpacking stove was clogged and I was in no mood to fiddle with it. My wife, the camping gear wiz, is far more adept at figuring this gadget out - and she is not here. The only solution was to go to Harper's General Store and risk whatever passed as "coffee" today. I survived. A farewell to the instructors from the Seneca Rocks Climbing School as they escorted their clients to the waiting cliffs, and I was off.

Green Bank is about an hour south of Seneca Rocks. There was little traffic on the road and I made good time, noting that dead deer were to be seen on the side of the road every 0.6 miles. Gee, how metric of them.

Meanwhile, not only was distance being calibrated for me by landmarks (Bambi), so was direction. Every turn in the road brought forth another handful of satellite dishes - all pointing more or less south. The locals joke and call them "Morning Glories, the state flower of West Virginia". Funny thing: all of these satellite dishes were pointing me directly at my destination: The National Radio Astronomy Observatory, home of some really big dishes. It seemed as if the entire state had taken up SETI.

Dishes in the Mist

After a nice hour of driving through near-peak fall foliage, still shrouded in morning mist, I entered Owens Valley. The road signs said I was close. Another turn in the road and I encountered a scene right out of the movie "Contact". If you saw the movie, think back to the shots of "the machine" in the distance at Kennedy Space Center. Flash forward to reality: Giant cranes and a nascent radio telescope could be seen with a band of mist at the base. I was later to learn that the movie's director never visited Green Bank for location shooting. Boy did he concoct an eerily similar view.

After parking my car and loading up my cameras, I was off on a 1 mile walk to the 140 foot radio telescope where I was scheduled to meet Dr. Jill Tarter, from The SETI Institute's Project Phoenix . I had to walk because internal combustion powered vehicles and their radio-noise-generating spark plugs are strictly forbidden anywhere near the radio telescopes. Thus I entered into a curious realm of pedestrians, bicycles, diesel-powered vehicles, and interstellar communication systems.

After 10 minutes or so I came around a curve in the road and saw an unusual sight. Ahead of me was the 140 Foot radiotelescope dish aimed not up in the sky but, instead, right at me. As I got closer I could see that the service tower had been wheeled up to the instrument section located at the focus of the dish. Closer, and I could see people with yellow safety helmets moving about. As I got within shouting range, the people in the tower started to come down the stairs. Among them was Jill Tarter from the SETI Institute. A shout to "smile for the camera" elicited a big smile and a wave.

Jill was accompanied by a local freelance writer and a German television crew from "Focus TV". We all got to know each other quickly and managed to have a rather enjoyable day as we preyed upon various aspects of Jill's time. Oh yes, Jill did have real work to do amidst all of our interruptions.

Rising from the ashes

Several years ago Congress demonstrated a collective lack of foresight and cancelled all NASA-sponsored SETI work. Out of this fiasco arose a private search effort: the SETI Institute's Project Phoenix. Project Phoenix is the privately funded continuation of the Targeted Search portion of the now-defunct NASA High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS). HRMS was, in turn, previously known as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). During the time when NASA funded search programs, SETI Institute scientists, engineers and subcontractors were primarily responsible for the design, development and operation of the The Targeted Search System (TSS) for the HRMS. Now that private funding has been secured, NASA has provided the TSS to the SETI Institute on long term loan.

In order for the Targeted Search System to make use of this radio telescope for a SETI search special hardware needed to be installed. Just before I had arrived, telephone booth-sized receiver had been installed at the focus of the 140 foot radio telescope. Several racks of hardware were installed within the control room, while a trailer (filled to capacity with more gear) was installed approximately 100 feet from the base of the dish.

The trailer ("Mobile Research Facility") is totally self-contained and is designed to be transported (and plugged into) radio observatories all over the world. Inside the trailer are 10 or so powder blue racks and a sophisticated climate control (cooling) system. Jill noted that this facility, created in the early 1990s, had already been surpassed by newer, more powerful technology. Once this round of observations is complete, the entire facility is due for a massive hardware upgrade.

As Jill and a co-worker unfurled the Project Phoenix banner atop the trailer, you could see evidence of why the project's name is so appropriate: on the side of the trailer, beneath a sheet of plastic laminate, one could still make out the raised "N A S A" letters of the old NASA "worm" logo.

SETI Road Show

The SETI Institute was moving its Project Phoenix operations to Green Bank for the next few months. This involves not only the installation of specific receiver hardware in the radio telescope, but also the calibration of the radio telescope such that its operations could be controlled from Mountain View, California. The buzz word for this at NASA is "telescience". Now it is becoming known as "virtual collaboration".

Once the dish's operators were certain that the basic connections for the new gear were all in place, the dish began to swing up off the ground. Soon it was pointing skyward. I was caught off guard by both the speed - and grace - with which this immense structure repositioned itself. The telescope was then commanded to go through a series of known source observations to make sure that everything was calibrated properly. After some initial glitches, things began to fall into place.


[Part 2]
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