Space Enthusiasts Campaign
to Keep Telescope Searching
By Dave Lore
February 24, 1995
As predictable as Halley's Comet, the "Big Ear" controversy is again orbiting Ohio State University as the lease expires on the university's huge radio telescope near Delaware, Ohio.
"I am appalled to hear that this historic telescope is still under threat," said Arthur C. Clarke, a science fiction writer, in a Jan. 27  letter to OSU President Gordon Gee. "I hope you will be able to preserve an instrument which has perhaps done more than anything else to make your University famous throughout the world!"
The radio telescope, built in the 1950s and bigger than three football fields, was the first to begin continuous monitoring of signals from space and thus is something of an icon among supporters of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. A number of SETI scientists and supporters have written Gee about the telescope, include Cornell University astronomer Carl Sagan.
"I've heard from everybody from 8-year-olds to some very high-level people," said William Baeslack, an associate dean of engineering involved in the lease negotiations. "Obviously this is a high profile issue, and it will get a lot of press, and a lot of people will be interested."
In 1983, Green Highlands, the development group that owns the telescope's 24-acre site east of Rt. 23, south of Delaware, stirred a fuss by trying to evict the observatory to expand an adjacent golf course. Students staged fundraisers, a Save the Telescope Committee was organized and publications around the world wrote about the shutdown between golf and galactic science.
A settlement in 1985 gave OSU a 10-year lease, with the right to renew in another 10 years. The original term expires July 31. OSU likely faces an increase on its $9,000 yearly lease because of new property appraisals. What's hanging up negotiations and causing tremors among telescope supporters, however, is a lease clause requiring OSU to give the 24,000 square-foot instrument a fresh paint job - preferably in golf course green - upon renewal.
That could cost as much as $285,000, more than the original cost of building the two giant reflectors, said John Kraus, the professor emeritus of engineering [electrical engineering and astronomy] who built the telescope, named it "Big Ear" and in retirement serves as director of the OSU Radio Observatory. Kraus said the $285,000 estimate was based on special problems involved in removing the old lead-based paint from the two reflectors. The reflectors, which face each other across a 3.5 acre aluminum ground plane, are towering structures, 70 and 100 feet high and 360 and 340 feet across, respectively.
OSU has given Green Highlands formal notice of its intention to renew, but Baeslack said no options - including cancellation - have been ruled out. One possibility, for example, is that OSU might agree to abandon the telescope before 2005, providing Green Highlands pays for the paint job or waives the requirement, Baeslack said.
Richard Farr, principal partner in Green Highlands, could not be reached for comment yesterday. "This comes at a particularly bad time," said Robert S. Dixon, assistant director of the observatory. New equipment has recently been installed, he said, and an expansion of activities on the site is possible. "This has somewhat of a chilling effect if the research sponsor can't be sure we'll continue what we're doing," said Dixon.
Funding to search for extraterrestrial intelligence was eliminated by Congress last year, Dixon said, but OSU has applied to NASA for about $500,000 to build a new type of radio telescope on the site: and array of computer-linked, mini-receivers that could operate concurrently with the old-style Kraus telescope. Dixon and Kraus have also been talking with the U.S. Geological Survey about installing seismographs on the site to tie Ohio into the U.S. National Seismograph Network, an earthquake detection grid.
The radio telescope is currently used by students in the OSU Electroscience Laboratory as well as by students at other area colleges.
Volunteers continue to pursue programs to catalog natural radio sources - such as stars and galaxies - and monitor 4 million channels for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, Dixon said.
"Even if it is decommissioned, it should be preserved as a national monumnet, like the gantries at Cape Canaveral," Clarke wrote to Gee. "The discoveries it has already made should act as an inspiration to the rising generation, and perhaps help to turn back the tide of anti-intellectualism which threatens to engulf the Western world in a new Dark Age of neo-barbarism," Clarke said.