Why a cutting-edge observatory uses 30-year-old trucks

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, West Virginia, features the largest fully steerable radio telescope and is the last place you would expect to see anything less than cutting-edge. Why, then, are 30-year-old diesel trucks the only vehicles allowed near the telescopes?

The answer has to do with the radio interference caused by electronic devices. Radio telescopes are very sensitive to radio frequency interference (RFI) and the electric spark plugs and computer chips inside modern gasoline-powered cars cause all kinds of problems for the observatory. Old diesels, however, use glow plugs instead of spark plugs and mechanical fuel injection instead of electronic injection, which is why these vehicles were chosen to originally work at the observatory when the telescopes were new.

The trucks are plugged in whenever they are parked to increase the life of the engine

The trucks are plugged in whenever they are parked to increase the life of the engine
Supplied, Raulpop

The NRAO can’t even update its aging fleet to newer diesels because they come packed with such radio frequency interference-creating devices as door chimes, seatbelt buzzers and computer-controlled engine management systems. Even things as small as laptop computers and digital cameras interfere with these telescopes. Because of this, there is no cellphone reception around the telescope and only a few TV and radio channels.

The fleet includes old diesel buses, Chevrolet Suburbans, pickups and even some diesel-powered Checker Marathons. There are a few newer vehicles around the campus, but only the old diesels are allowed to go near the telescopes. Some of the oldest vehicles in the fleet are nearly 45 years old now, and yet they are still going strong. This goes to show that classic rides are great because they don’t interfere with your work!

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