To Find Aliens, You Have To Ban WiFi, Cell Phones and Gas-Powered Cars

The National Radio Quiet Zone covers 13,000 square miles.
Screenshot: Half As Interesting

There is no wifi. There are no cell phones. There are no microwaves. There are no automatic sliding doors. This is what life is like in the area around the Green Bank Observatory. And as you enter the gates, even gasoline cars are banned. This is what we sacrifice when we go hunting for aliens.

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The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope is a radio telescope, looking for signs of life in distant galaxies. It’s the world’s largest steerable telescope, scanning the sky for any faint hint of someone else out there.

And to find what it’s looking for, it has to listen very, very carefully.

“The types of energies we look at are less than the energy of a single snowflake falling on the earth,” Karen O’Neill, the Green Bank site director, told NPR.

Because of the sensitivity, blocking out all possible interference is of crucial importance. That’s why Green Bank Observatory sits at the center of the National Radio Quiet Zone, a federally protected, 13,000 square mile area in West Virginia and Maryland where radio transmissions are strictly regulated. West Virginia has also codified strict controls on radio equipment in the area into its state laws.

Sugar Grove Station, a former naval base turned NSA listening station, is also situated in the NRQZ. Less is known about why the NSA is stationed in a radio quiet zone, though it may make hostile snooping easier to detect.

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The full quiet zone, it’s worth noting, is not completely radio free. The restrictions get more strict as you get closer, as Half As Interesting explained in his 2018 video:

Most interestingly for Jalopnik readers, the regulations within the gates of the observatory become so strict that gasoline vehicles are banned. While diesel and gasoline vehicles usually contain radios, that’s not the problem as those typically receive rather than emit radio waves.

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The problem is with the engines themselves. The pulsing of electricity in the spark plugs of gasoline engines creates trace amounts of radio interference, which can be picked up by the satellite.

In general, though, modern cars of all propulsion types may challenge the NRQZ. Given that a large percentage of modern cars emit bluetooth, radar waves, wifi signals and ultrasonic waves, it may be difficult to stop all radio interference. Authorities do operate signal sniffer trucks to suss out violators, but that’s more difficult if you have to find a moving target.

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For now, though, the surrounding area is content to be one of the few places in America that are Not Online. Despite wired connections still being legal, the lack of wireless internet access makes Green Bank, West Virginia one of the most off-the-grid places you can go. Except for the whole NSA listening station next door.

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About the author

Mack Hogan

Mack Hogan is Jalopnik's Weekend Editor, but you may know him from his role as CNBC's car critic or his brave (and maligned) takes on Twitter. Most people agree that you shouldn't listen to him.