Ohio Historical Society
Big Ear Marker
November 5, 2000
The North American AstroPhysical Observatory
The final operators of the Big Ear Radio Telescope
Big Ear was constructed in the late '50's and early '60's on land leased
to Ohio State University by Ohio Wesleyan University. It was largely
funded by grants from the National Science Foundation. For twelve years
a thorough survey of 80% of the sky available from the site was carried
out at 600 MHz and 1420 MHz.
By 1972 the astronomy budget at NSF was mostly committed to three large national observatories. Small, independent facilities were generally left to fend for themselves and to seek support from other sources, many of which were notably pressed by competing research interests.
In 1973, Robert Dixon saw the possibility of using the highly sensitive telescope and instrumentation already in existence to mount a low-cost survey. Since Big Ear was no longer being funded to monitor the 20,000 discrete sources it had mapped nor search for uniquely far-off objects, Dixon's proposal was to mount a search for radio signals unlike those arising from natural emitters like galaxies, supernovae quasars and pulsars. These signals would be characteristic of what might be expected to arise as artifacts - sent intentionally by or incidental to -- the existence of advanced technological civilizations.
This automated Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) would operate continuously. The only human intervention would be to periodically change the position of the flat reflector, keep the output devices supplied with blank punch cards and printer paper, and a regular scanning of the output of the line printer for indications of the prescribed narrow-band signals arising from a celestial object. A small cadre of volunteers carried out these activities.
The SETI program ran steadily for a decade, until falling enrollments and the resulting financial crisis led administrators at Ohio Wesleyan University to decide to sell the land upon which Big Ear was situated. A development company purchased the land, expressing a plan to turn the acreage into a golf course and an upscale housing development.
Public outcry and an outpouring of dismay by the international astronomical community moved the developers to allow the Ohio State University to enter into a ten year renewable lease agreement to permit the telescope to continue to operate on its established site.
Since very modest funding by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was insufficient to hire professional staff, a group of central Ohio Business, Professional, and Scientific people founded a volunteer organization to "...operate and maintain Big Ear..." as an educational and research instrument. Chartered in 1983 as a non-profit organization named North American AstroPhysical Observatory, (NAAPO) the purpose was to save, maintain and operate Ohio's only world-class radio telescope. Letters of invitation were sent to a large number of colleges and universities offering the opportunity to participate in the program.
The initial response to the invitations, though sympathetic, was universally negative. Perceived as a doomed enterprise, few college administrators wanted anything to do with a potentially bottomless financial pit. No one immediately stepped forward to take part in this adventure.
Shortly after initially refusing the NAAPO invitation, the president of Otterbein College in nearby Westerville, OH, resigned. A new president saw an opportunity to gain greater exposure of the college in the local community. President C. Brent DeVore agreed to grant a sabbatical leave to a physics professor to explore the possibilities of Big Ear as an undergraduate research opportunity. Dr. Philip E. Barnhart spent the spring quarter and summer of 1985 working with the group of volunteers and graduate students at Big Ear.
Sensing a great potential for involving undergraduate students in very meaningful interaction with talented, experienced research personnel, Barnhart began contacting colleges and universities giving lectures and seminars on the plight of the telescope and the concept of a search for intelligent civilizations beyond the earth. By December 1985 six more colleges and universities had agreed to join a consortium called NAAPO
These consortium members joined a dozen local volunteers to provide valuable services, such as shop work, electronics design and construction, physical labor, data analysis, archive preservation, mechanical repair and editorial help. Annual involvement of between 5000 and 10,000 volunteer-hours meant many tasks of upgrading Big Ear were accomplished.
Important contributions were made by an ever-evolving team consisting of eighth grade middle school students; secondary teachers and students; college research and teaching faculty and staff; undergraduate physics and engineering students; business, industry and professional people, (self-employed and organization-employed); retired technicians, engineers and scientists.
Many had no college degree, some brought bachelor's degrees and master's degrees and no less than fourteen PhD's have contributed to the volunteer effort. Volunteers at all levels of academic achievement have made many important contributions.
To enable so much accomplishment by so many dedicated volunteers the generous financial contributions of many far-flung friends of NAAPO must be noted.
These make possible needed equipment, services, travel support, publication costs and the support of a number of student interns who spend six to ten weeks involved on-site with the active volunteer staff.
In recent years NAAPO has taken on responsibility for activities originally supported by Ohio State University. It maintains the radio observatory archives, supports on-going research into development of new technology radio telescopes, including the Argus array all-sky radio telescope. NAAPO will maintain a historical marker to commemorate Ohio's pioneering radio telescope and its founder, Dr. John D. Kraus.
Opportunities for local friends to join the NAAPO volunteers may be explored through our web page at: www.bigear.org.
Tax deductible donations going entirely to support our research and educational mission may be sent to:
NAAPO c/o Dr. Philip E. Barnhart 4655 Indian Ct Westerville, OH 43082-8817
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Last modified: August 10, 2004.