Ask Dr. SETI ®
by Frank D. Drake
One of the justifications for observational SETI is that Earth has been radiating electromagnetic signals into space for the better part of a century, so other technological societies may be doing so as well. This is a story about quantifying Earth's electromagnetic leakage, a story which few people know for reasons which will become obvious.
Go on Google Earth to longitude 79.27 west, latitude 38.515 north. There you will see something quite amazing - a major radio observatory almost no one has ever heard of! There are some 13 fully steerable big dishes, the largest being about 30 meters, and a cluster of ten small dishes. This is the "Naval Communication Station, Sugar Grove, West Virginia" (where is the ocean?).
What is the history of this? It was built in the 1960's to exploit a discovery made by the Naval Research Lab, which was that the moon could be used as a high quality radio reflector. Not just for radar, but for clear voice communications. This motivated a truly major project to build, as quickly as possible, a 600-foot fully steerable radio telescope with capabilities at centimeter wavelengths. The idea was to eavesdrop on the communications channels of the Soviet Union, which would be possible using "moon bounce" whenever the moon was visible from Sugar Grove and the Soviet Union at the same time (which is not a lot of the day). This was happening at the height of the Cold War. A frantic construction project was started. Not only a big telescope was to be built, but a major power station to provide uninterrupted power -- the big dish was also a giant sail, and would require a great deal of power to steer properly in strong winds. The power station would need a dedicated natural gas supply line from Pennsylvania to guarantee reliable service. A small town would have to be built to house not only the necessarily large electronics staff, but also the huge number of linguists who would listen to all the intercepted channels, which might be in the hundreds at any time. Picture a bee hive of little rooms, all underground, protected from RFI by overhead imported charcoal and soil, with each room having a linguist with headphones on listening to conversations in far away Russia. It was there. I saw it.
A group of us from the NRAO were invited to visit the place after it had been under construction for about a year. The things mentioned above, village and all, were already in place. The huge rotating base of the telescope,which was many stories high, was in place, and the towers to support the dish, each more than 300 feet high, were far along in construction. There were huge structural components on the ground everywhere. The whole thing seemed like something out of a science fiction movie. It had been adopted as the symbol to be used with the Centennial Birthday Celebrations of the State of West Virginia in 1961. There were countless coffee mugs and T-shirts with an artist's conception of the telescope on them and souvenirs of all kinds.
Then things went off the tracks, figuratively and in reality. The construction of the rotating base had been designed before the detailed engineering design of the dish had been complete. As the dish design became finalized, it was realized that the dish structure, to be sufficiently robust, would have to use heavier steel members than in the preliminary designs. The overall weight of the finished dish grew. In fact, it grew so much that the rotating base, as already built, was no longer strong enough to support the dish. Large parts of it had to be removed and replaced with sturdier steel. This would cost a lot, and would lead to a large delay in the date of completion. Would Congress go along with this? And then came the last straw, or rather giant piece of concrete falling on it. It was 1962, the fourth year of the space age. The US had enough experience to know that you could build satellites to be placed in low Earth orbit which could carry out the eavesdropping function, but for the whole Soviet Union and 24 hours a day. So much better than the big dish! The project was canceled! -- As quietly as is possible with a project which is 80 stories high. The government of West Virginia was devastated -- all those coffee cups and T-shirts wasted.
The Navy continued to complete the site as a radio observatory. Clearly there is a lot of activity of some kind going on there. If you look at the image on Google Earth, you can see the remnants of the circular foundations of the base of the 600-foot dish. A sort of astronomical Stonehenge. Once there were great structures, much like Stonehenge, on the foundations still visible in the soil. Much of the town is still there, just to the north of the site. It looks like a neat, company, town. Has the site been used to collect information via moon bounce, as originally intended? If so, there must be a huge collection of well-calibrated data on the radio signature of Earth as seen from interstellar distances. Maybe there is no need to design space missions to gather data about Earth’s electromagnetic leakage. The data already exists somewhere in Sugar Grove.
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this page last updated 3 March 2018
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