Science Trip to Green Bank Observatory
Science Trip to Green Bank Observatory

By John Gruber

Twenty Friends’ Central Upper School students and three science teachers spent last weekend at Green Bank Observatory in the Shenandoah Mountains of West Virginia. The trip was the culmination of a yearlong study of astrophysics and astronomy that featured a visit from Barnard College professor Janna Levin, author and theoretical physicist. Green Bank Observatory is a premiere radio astronomy research site and home of the world’s largest fully steerable telescope, the Green Bank Telescope, a 100-foot, highly sensitive instrument that is responsible for a wide range of astronomical discoveries, including the detection of many new pulsars and the most massive neutron star ever observed. 

Students had a full tour of the astronomy campus that included a visit to the main control room for the Green Bank Telescope. There, Dr. Frank Ghigo (a cousin of our own Middle School Principal Alexa Quinn) described how the instrument is used and gave some of the history of the facility and important research applications. Dr. Ghigo also described the need for shielding and protection from stray ambient radio frequency emissions that have become almost ubiquitous in our high tech environment. Later, students were trained in small groups on a 40-foot radio telescope, learning how to steer and point the instrument and scan through a range of radio frequencies to look for ground-state hydrogen emissions from a characteristic 21 cm radio wavelength that is emitted by hydrogen in space. After dinner, students met in the Drake lounge with Dr. Ron Maddalena, a GBT scientist and former research mentor to FCS science department's Debbie Skapik. Dr. Maddalena spoke to students about his own astronomy background and research interests, about the Drake equation that uses a variety of variables in an effort to estimate the number of communicative extraterrestrial civilizations that might exists in our galaxy, and about national funding for astronomy and basic science research. 

Students stayed up all night on Saturday, rotating in small teams through the underground bunker beneath the 40-foot radio telescope to aim the dish at different parts of the sky at precise times in order to pick up signals from known radio sources. The teams were very successful in collecting some valuable data, and their hydrogen spectra were discussed and analyzed in a group session on Sunday morning.

Among the objects the students observed over the many hours of the summer night were Saturn, a star-forming gas cloud called the Trifid nebula, a galaxy called Cygnus A, and a supermassive black hole at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy called Sagittarius A*. James Meyers, a rising senior and member of the Science Core Team, said that operating the 40-foot telescope with all of its dials and switches made him feel like he was on the set of a science movie, but even more importantly, made him feel like he was actually doing the work of a research scientist.

Kendrick Key ’20 remarked, “I'll never forget the feeling of amazement I had when the pens on our detector went soaring off the page as the center of our galaxy passed through the gaze of the radio telescope.”

Reflecting on the experience, Elizabeth Forsyth ’20 said, “It was honestly one of the coolest things I've ever participated in. To be able to track celestial objects with a radio telescope in the middle of the night was awesome. Also, the fact that the site was basically in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains. … Everyone was so proud of the data we got. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

The visit to FCS by Dr. Janna Levin this spring was made possible by Friends’ Central’s Distinguished Lecture Series, which seeks to inspire the next generation of writers, educators, scientists, researchers, policy makers, and thinkers by bringing renowned scholars to campus for courses and a public lecture. A core group of Friends' Central students prepare for the lectures in advance and participate in special classes and workshops both on campus and at the lecturer's home institution as part of the Distinguished Visiting Humanist and Scientist Programs. The lectures are always free and open to the general public. 

(Pictured in photo above: Soseh Yepoyan '18, Eva Gonzalez '18, and Kendrick Key '20 in front of the control instruments in the bunker under the 400-foot radio telescope)