'Big Ear' radio telescope
in last days
By David Lore
December 14, 1997
Editorial corrections will be shown in red.
With closure only weeks away, Ohio State University's "Big Ear" radio telescope south of Delaware is slipping back into the mud from whence it came.
No closing ceremonies are planned when the university's lease with developers expires Dec. 31, Assistant Director Robert Dixon said. [A closing ceremony was held on August 15, 1997, the twentieth anniversary of the Wow! Signal.]
With construction proceeding on the Dornoch Golf Club Course around the telescope site, "it's getting more and more difficult to even be there," Dixon said. "It's an absolute mudhole now, an absolute disaster."
The telescope's builder, OSU Professor Emeritus Robert Kraus [Oops, make that John D. Kraus], recalls in Big Ear, his history of the project, that construction of the huge telescope in 1956 was delayed often because "after a heavy rain, the site became a sea of mud and made working difficult."
Dixon faults the golf course developer, New Green Highlands Development Ltd., for failing to maintain access to the site during recent months.
But he said all salvageable components have been removed.
Green Highlands President Gary Bachinski, however, said a gravel access road has been kept open and that construction has not interfered with telescope operations. [Not true. Firstly, the gravel road only went as far as the administration building. There was no good quality road between the building and the telescope itself. The condition of the gravel road on many occasions deteriorated to the point that only 4 wheel drive utility vehicles could pass through to the administration building. There were times when the passage to the telescope itself was virtually impossible. Our members do not drive graders!]
The 24-acre site is needed for a driving range for the golf course, scheduled to open in June, he said.
No date has been set for the demolition of the telescope's two giant reflectors - each 70 feet long [Make that 340 feet long.] and 100 feet high - that face one another across a 3.5 acre aluminum ground plane.
Big Ear has made significant contributions to astronomy over the years, Kraus said.
During the 1960's and 70's, it picked up signals from celestial objects 10 billion light years away, the most distant objects ever detected at that time.
"We also cataloged and mapped 20,000 radio sources, providing a completely different picture than that seen through optical telescopes," Kraus said.
The observatory also provided educational opportunities for students over four decades, becoming a career launching pad for several dozen radio astronomers, he said.
This was all done with an operating budget that rarely exceeded $50,000 a year, said Kraus.
Big Ear was best known, however, for its pioneering work in the SETI - search for extraterrestrial intelligence - program.
The so-called "Wow!" signal recorded by Big Ear's computer in 1977 remains to some the most tantalizing evidence received of extraterrestrial intelligence, although the mysterious, 72-second signal was never repeated or explained.
"In its demise," said Kraus, "these these things will loom larger than they did before. I think it will focus attention on what the telescope accomplished in its short lifetime."
Big Ear volunteers, organized in 1983 as the North American Astrophysical Observatory group, are moving operations to a small building near OSU's ElectroScience Laboratory on Kinnear Road.
Dixon says he plans to build a prototype of a new type of radio telescope on the building's roof, using a $25,000 grant from the California-based SETI Institute.
The new "Argus" design is a spiral array of many small conical antennae rather than a single, large instrument.
Although no final memorial is planned [Already held. See note above.], Big Ear will be featured in an upcoming documentary by the British Broadcasting System, Kraus said.
"Maybe there's more interest in the U.K. in this than there is in central Ohio," he said.