SUPER SIGNAL STRENGTH

The new search for aliens will start in one of the quietest, most uneventful places in America

If you want to find aliens, a 13,000-square-mile (37,000 sq km) bit of land in the eastern United States turns out to be one of the best places to look.

Russian billionaire Yuri Milner’s $100 million dollar gift to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) center at the University of California at Berkeley, announced on July 20, will help searchers dramatically expand their mission to find life beyond Earth. The institute, which has (like other SETI programs) operated on something of a shoestring, will use part of the money to rent out the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope, the Green Bank telescope, which is part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).

National Radio Quiet Zone
(National Radio Astronomy Observatory)

The NRAO is located in a patch of land called the “National Radio Quiet Zone” in Virginia, West Virginia, and a sliver of Maryland. It puts tight restrictions on radio transmissions, codified in West Virginia’s Radio Astronomy Zoning Act. Cell service is nearly nonexistent, and broadcast radio transmitters must coordinate with the observatory, point their antennas away from it, and operate at reduced power. Around the telescope itself the restrictions are particularly severe; employees from the NRAO drive around the area scanning for rogue Wi-Fi users or microwaves.

So why is this particular patch of land one of the only places in the country to be mostly free of radio transmissions? The zone was created by the US government back in 1958 to shield the NRAO and the Navy’s Sugar Grove base (scheduled to close this year) from interference, then produced mainly by spark plugs, radios, and power lines; the latter are now legally required to be buried four feet underground throughout the area.

The rise of ubiquitous wireless communication made truly quiet (in a radio sense) places very rare. While federal oversight is limited to registered transmitters, state laws are required to restrict mobile devices. Scientists haven’t managed to push through the same kind of restrictions when building other, similar telescopes in the US, making the area pretty unique.

Even tiny amounts of interference, like from a musical greeting card opened near the installation, can interfere with delicate readings. It’s near impossible to avoid that kind of interruption now without a good amount of buffer space and regulation. The zone has also attracted a more unusual set of residents—people who believe they’re ultra-sensitive to electromagnetic radiation.

The Green Bank telescope has become available to rent because the US National Science Foundation has had its funding cut, and has even sought to shut down the installation or find other research centers to share the cost of running it.

Some of the listening will be done elsewhere, including at another large telescope in Australia, and the hard-core data analysis will happen back at Berkeley. But if we manage to find signs of alien life, it could be the quietest parts of West Virginia that hear them first.

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