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NRAO’s Iconic 140-Foot Radio Telescope Celebrates 50 Years of Discovery

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Posted October 14, 2015
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NRAO’s iconic 140-foot telescope as seen today. This trailblazing instrument celebrates the 50th anniversary of its inauguration on Oct. 13, 2015. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF

Today the Governor of West Virginia Earl Ray Tomblin recognized the 50th Anniversary of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s 140-foot radio telescope. The governor’s proclamation was read at the NRAO in Green Bank as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of this iconic telescope, which is regarded as one of astronomy’s trailblazing instruments.

The proclamation states: “The 140-foot radio telescope […] helped lay the cornerstone of modern astronomy, and is internationally recognized for its unprecedented design and contributions to our understanding of the Universe.”

The 140-foot telescope was inaugurated in 1965 and retired from routine observations in 2001 to make way for the 100-meter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT), the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope. During its 36 years as one of the premier instruments at Green Bank, the 140-foot telescope helped to launch the fledgling field of astrochemistry, revealed key details about the nature and composition of galaxies, and provided insights into the potential for life elsewhere in the cosmos.

Though no longer used for routine scientific observations, the 140-foot telescope still supports astronomical research through its current mission as one of only two Earth stations for the RadioAstron satellite – the farthest element of an Earth-to-space-spanning radio telescope system.

“This instrument is truly part of the history of science,” said Green Bank Site Director Karen O’Neil. “We are delighted that it can still have such an important role to play in our exploration of the cosmos.”

Planning for the telescope began in 1955 even before the NRAO was founded. At that time, some of the nation’s leading scientists and engineers set out to design, build, and operate an “exceptional radio telescope for the nation’s astronomical community.” Construction began in 1958 and the final telescope components arrived at the NRAO in 1964. The main construction was completed in February of 1965, allowing astronomers and engineers to align and test the instrument before its commissioning and start of routine operations.

The telescope is indeed unique and remains the largest equatorially mounted telescope in the world. The telescope itself weighs an impressive 2,700 tons and sits atop a 5,840 ton concrete and steel pedestal. The “heart” of the telescope is a precisely machined, hemispheric bearing – also the largest in the world – that floats on a continuously circulating thin film of oil.

The first "slew" or side-to-side motion of the 140-foot telescope as seen in 1965 after the last aluminum panels were installed. The telescope celebrates its 50th anniversary on Oct. 13, 2015. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF

The first “slew” or side-to-side motion of the 140-foot telescope as seen in 1965 after the last aluminum panels were installed. The telescope celebrates its 50th anniversary on Oct. 13, 2015. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF

“The 140-foot telescope set the stage for modern radio astronomy,” noted O’Neil. “We are heartened that on its 50th anniversary Governor Tomblin has recognized its contributions and the pride the people of West Virginia should take in its continued service to exploring the unknown.”
Tours of the Green Bank site are offered year round, allowing the public up-close views of the 140-foot telescope and the other telescopes at Green Bank that opened new frontiers of discovery and continue to unlock the mysteries of the Universe.

Source: NRAO

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