What is the United States National Radio Quiet Zone?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 11 May 2020
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The United States National Radio Quiet Zone is a stretch of land between Virginia and West Virginia in which radio transmissions and other sources of potential electronic interference are tightly controlled. The controls in the Quiet Zone are designed to allow the highly sensitive radio telescopes at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) at Green Bank to pick up extremely weak signals from space. These signals can be used to gather information about the nature of the universe.

The NRAO was established in the 1950s with the goal of furthering scientific knowledge in the United States. The site was chosen very carefully, as the landscape of the surrounding environment minimizes interference from signals on the ground. However, the explosion of radio, television, and other communications quickly became a problem, with the telescope picking up interference which impeded its operation. In response, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established the National Radio Quiet Zone in 1958. This zone covers 13,000 square miles (33,670 square kilometers).

In the National Radio Quiet Zone, cell phones, pagers, and other wireless devices do not work. The use of wireless networking cards, cordless speakers, and so forth are also strongly discouraged in this area, and any radio stations must coordinate their transmissions with the staff at the telescope to ensure that their transmissions do not conflict with the telescope. Near the telescope, only diesel vehicles are allowed, as gasoline vehicles need spark plugs, which can cause interference.

The rules of the Quiet Zone are enforced by a roving patroller who uses a monitoring system to detect sources of interference. A variety of solutions to interference can be reached. For example, a malfunctioning power pole might lead to a call to the utility company for replacement, while a shorting home appliance might be replaced so that the short doesn't interfere with the extremely sensitive telescope. As a general rule, potential sources of interference are only permitted if they are needed for public safety, not profit or recreation.

In addition to hosting the NRAO, the Quiet Zone also harbors a Naval installation at Sugar Grove. The workings of the Sugar Grove installation are top secret, although given that it is in the Quiet Zone, it is safe to assume that it is used to monitor transmissions. Several communications utilities also have installations in or near this area to pick up and relay transmissions.

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