Green Bank Telescope

Green Bank Telescope

Green Bank Telescope
Organization NRAO
Location(s) Green Bank, West Virginia, USA
Wavelength radio telescope and microwave band
Built 1991-2002
First light August 22, 2000
Telescope style Parabolic off-axis reflector, Gregorian optics
Diameter 100 m
Collecting area 7,854 m2
Focal length 60 m
Mounting wheel and track mount

The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) is the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope, as well as being the world's largest moveable land object. It is part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) site at Green Bank, West Virginia. The telescope honors the name of the late Senator Robert C. Byrd who represented West Virginia and who pushed the funding of the telescope through Congress.

The Green Bank Telescope operates at meter to millimeter wavelengths. Its 100-meter diameter collecting area, unblocked aperture, and excellent surface accuracy provide superb sensitivity across the telescope's full 0.1–116 GHz operating range. The GBT is fully steerable, and 85% of the entire celestial sphere is accessible. Its operation is highly efficient, and it is used for astronomy about 6500 hours every year, with 2000–3000 hours per year going to high frequency science. Part of the scientific strength of the GBT is its flexibility and ease of use, allowing for rapid response to new scientific ideas. It is scheduled dynamically to match project needs to the available weather. The GBT is also readily reconfigured with new and experimental hardware, adopting the best technology for any scientific pursuit. The high sensitivity mapping capability of the GBT makes it a necessary complement to the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, the Expanded Very Large Array, the Very Long Baseline Array, and other high angular resolution interferometers. Facilities of the Green Bank Observatory are also used for other scientific research, for many programs in education and public outreach, and for training students and teachers.

The current telescope, completed in 2000, was built following the collapse of the previous Green Bank telescope, a 90.44 m paraboloid erected in 1962. The previous telescope collapsed on 15 November 1988 due to the sudden loss of a gusset plate in the box girder assembly, which was a key component for the structural integrity of the telescope.[1]


  • Location 1
  • Description 2
  • Discoveries 3
  • Engineering priorities 4
  • Funding threatened 5
  • Relation to Breakthrough Listen 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9


The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Radio Telescope (GBT) has a collecting area of 2.3 acres (0.93 ha) which focuses the radio waves falling on it onto sensitive receivers at the top of the boom attached to the side. It is 485 feet (148 m) tall, nearly as tall as the nearby mountains and much taller than the pine trees in the nearby national forest.

The telescope sits near the heart of the United States National Radio Quiet Zone, a large area where all radio transmissions are limited to avoid emissions toward the GBT and the Sugar Grove Research Facility, West Virginia. The existence of the telescope within the Radio Quiet Zone allows for the detection of faint radio-frequency signals which otherwise would be eclipsed by man-made signals. The observatory borders the National Forest and is shielded from radio interference by the Allegheny Mountains.


The structure weighs 8500 tons and is 450 feet tall. The surface area of the GBT is a 100 by 110 meter active surface with 2,209 actuators (small motors used to adjust the position) for the 2,004 surface panels. The panels are made from aluminium to a surface accuracy of better than 0.003 inches (76 µm) RMS. The actuators adjust the panel positions to correct for distortions due to gravity which change as the telescope moves. Without this so-called "active surface", observations at frequencies above 4 GHz would not be as efficient.[2]

Unusually for a radio telescope, the primary reflector is an off-axis segment of a paraboloid. This is the same design used in familiar home satellite television (e.g., DirecTV) dishes. The asymmetric reflector allows the telescope's focal point and feed horn to be located at the side of the dish, so that it and its retractable support boom do not obstruct the incoming radio waves, as occurs in conventional radio telescope designs with the feed located on the telescope's beam axis.

The offset support arm houses a retractable prime focus feed horn in front of the 8 m subreflector and eight higher-frequency feeds on a rotating turret at the Gregorian focus. Operational frequencies range from 290 MHz to 100 GHz.[2]

Because of its height (at 485 feet tall, it's 60% taller than the Statue of Liberty) and bulk (16 million pounds), locals sometimes refer to the GBT as the “Great Big Thing”.[3][4]

It also has the distinction of being the world's largest moving land object.


Composite image of a spectral line observation of star forming region W51, showing the distribution of ammonia in the region. The image of the telescope from a time lapse film of a night of observations

In 2002, astronomers detected three new millisecond pulsars in the globular cluster Messier 62.[5]

In 2006, several discoveries were announced, including a large coil-shaped magnetic field in the Orion molecular cloud,[6] and a large hydrogen gas superbubble 23,000 light years away, named the Ophiuchus Superbubble.[7][8]

Since 2006 numerous discoveries have been made, including the most massive neutron star detected so far, a cloud of primordial gas which surrounds other galaxies, vast molecular clouds surrounding other galaxies, and complex molecules, such as sugar, in space. A listing of recent discoveries can be found at "Green Bank in the News" and 2012 GBT Publications.

Engineering priorities

The capabilities of all radio telescopes are determined by the surface accuracy of the telescope itself and the instrumentation developed by the engineering staff.

The NRAO GBT engineering staff priorities are set based on the advice of a science user's committee. These priorities develop in response to recent astronomical discoveries and on theoretical predictions published in astronomical journals. The science priorities as of December 2012 included increasing the sensitivity for pulsar observations at high frequencies (> 10 GHz) to allow observations near the galactic center, much higher spectrometer spectral resolution and bandwidth, to improve the efficiency of detection of molecular lines, and bolometer arrays, allowing more sensitive continuum observations. An additional priority is improving the capabilities for mapping large regions of the sky, to enable studies of the chemical processes in our galaxy. An array receiver was recently installed for observations in the frequency range 18 to 26.5 GHz, where several biologically significant molecules are seen by their molecular line emission. These molecules include water, ammonia, methanol, and formic acid.

Currently the surface accuracy of the GBT has been measured to be roughly 250 µm.

Funding threatened

The National Science Foundation (NSF) Astronomy Portfolio Review committee chaired by Daniel Eisenstein of Harvard University recommended in August 2012 that the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope should be defunded over a five-year period.[9] Further information on this divestiture can be found on the AUI webpage and at

In the fiscal year 2014 budget, the US Congress did not recommend divesting the Green Bank Telescope. The Telescope is looking for partners to help fund its $10 million annual operating costs.[10]

Relation to Breakthrough Listen

The telescope will scan for radio signals, possibly emitted by extra-terrestrials, in the range of 1-10 GHz, a so-called 'quiet zone' uninterrupted by man-made or natural sources. This immense undertaking is for the heavily funded Breakthrough Listen.[11]

See also


  1. ^ NRAO 300 foot Telescope Collapse
  2. ^ a b "The Proposer’s Guide for the Green Bank Telescope" (PDF).  
  3. ^ Jim Merithew, “Silence! The Last of the Giant Radio Telescopes Is Listening to the Universe”, Wired (October 2009)
  4. ^ John M Thompson, “W.Va. Observatory Scans the Universe for Radio Signals”, The Washington Post (19 November 2008)
  5. ^ "Newly Commissioned Green Bank Telescope Bags New Pulsars".  
  6. ^ Green Bank Telescope scores big finds in space: Fastest pulsar Slinky magnetics superbubble of hydrogen ID, The Charleston Gazette, 2006-01-17
  7. ^ The Ophiuchus Superbubble: A Gigantic Eruption from the Inner Disk of the Milky Way, ArXiv
  8. ^ "Huge 'Superbubble' of Gas Blowing Out of Milky Way".  
  9. ^ Hand, E. (2012). "US telescopes face up to agency cuts". Nature 488 (7412): 440.  
  10. ^ Bumgardner, Bryan. "Too Big to Fail? The Green Bank Telescope's Uncertain Future". Scientific American. Retrieved 2013-09-04. 
  11. ^ "". 

External links

  • Official website
  • Collection of West Virginia photos including Green Bank from