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History of Green Bank and the NRAO

by Karen ONeil last modified May 18, 2014 by David Halstead

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory was founded in 1956 in Green Bank, West Virginia. The Observatory's first telescope, the Tatel 85 Foot, was completed in 1959. The 300 Foot telescope was completed in 1962, followed by the 140 Foot telescope in 1965. The Observatory's newest telescope, the Green Bank Telescope was completed in the summer of 2001. In the mid-1960's the NRAO moved its headquarters from Green Bank to the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Other NRAO sites were opened in Tucson, Arizona and Socorro, New Mexico. The NRAO is currently in the design and development stage of a large, international project, ALMA, being built in Chile.


The NRAO has over 600 employees total among its sites. There are about 110 full-time staff members in Green Bank and another 30 part-time employees. The Green Bank site was originally chosen because of its sheltered, valley location, and its distance from large population centers. The natural mountain bowl surrounding Green Bank helps protect it from man-made radio interference, which is harmful to sensitive radio astronomy observations. In addition, Green Bank is in the center of a 13,000 square-mile area known as the National Radio Quiet Zone. This area, created by Federal regulations, is protected from harmful radio frequency interference broadcasts.

The name Green Bank supposedly arose from the fact that natural springs cause the hillside in town to remain green most of the year. Legend has it that people would schedule meetings at the "green bank," and the name stuck. The area south-west of Green Bank was used by Native Americans as a visiting camp where they set up an arrowhead "factory" due to the abundance of shale and flint.

Green Bank is located in Pocahontas County, nicknamed the "Birthplace of Rivers. "Eight rivers flow out of Pocahontas County- the Greenbrier, Shaver's Fork of the Cheat, Tygart Valley, Williams, Cherry, Cranberry, Gauley, and Elk. No rivers flow into the county. The county is located on the eastern border of West Virginia and Virginia, just below the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.