The United States National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ) is a 13,000 square-mile rectangle covering the southernmost tip of Maryland’s western panhandle, the Allegheny Mountains in Eastern West Virginia, and the Blue Ridge Mountains in Central Virginia. The area exists to protect key government installations deep in the heart of the NRQZ from radio interference, including the Green Bank Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. The most severe restrictions exist within a 20-mile radius of the observatory and involve limitations on Wi-Fi and cellular service, and the prohibition of all but diesel-powered vehicles when approaching the observatory itself.

The world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, operates at Green Bank and requires radio silence for its work. The telescope has found everything from a trio of millisecond pulsars from Messier 62 to the most massive neutron star yet discovered, PSR J0740+6620. Such findings are only possible due to the extreme sensitivity this and the other three radio telescopes at the observatory possess. But the drawbacks of these highly sensitive instruments are their ability to detect any radio transmission–from digital cameras, smartphones, or even the spark plugs of gasoline-powered vehicles. Thus, the restrictions imposed.

EVs in the NRQZ

Enter electric vehicles and the infrastructure needed to keep them going. For most parts of the NRQZ–which U.S. Interstates 81, 79 and 64 pass through–EV owners might not even realize they’re within this special part of the U.S. Would such vehicles face similar issues as gas-powered cars deep in the heart of this unique zone due to their electric motors emitting radio frequencies that would interfere with the work performed at the Green Bank Observatory?

“Electric vehicles are on campus,” said Jill Malusky, the news and information manager for the observatory. “Some of our staff have them. We have two charging stations on campus that the public can access. There are also some charging stations in the area. We have a bigger ski resort up here called the Snowshoe Ski Resort about a 45-minute drive [from Green Bank], and they have electric vehicle charging stations up there.”

Malusky adds that Green Bank isn’t as isolated as some reports would suggest; some 50,000 visitors visit the observatory each year to learn more about radio astronomy and the NRQZ. She says all vehicles are welcome onto the public areas of Green Bank Observatory, including EVs. But just like fully gas-powered vehicles, EVs, plug-in hybrids, and regular hybrids cannot approach the 1.5-mile radius surrounding the radio telescopes. The reason is that diesels do not emit as much radio interference as spark plugs and electric motors. Instead, visitors can hike or cycle one of the trails leading into the quietest part of the NRQZ, or board a diesel-powered bus.

However, there is one potential concern still on the ground: the day diesels are potentially phased out of production. As more and more manufacturers push to go fully electric, it may not be too long afterwards until the parts needed to keep the diesels at Green Bank going are harder to track down. What happens then?

“When we are doing maintenance, we tend to turn our biggest telescope off,” said Mulasky. “We already most of the time turn everything off, anyways; we can’t observe while maintenance is happening. So, we would just do it like that. We would just shift the way that we do maintenance, turn everything off, plan accordingly, and then get those electric vehicles out of the way when they’re done, turn everything back on.”

Who lives in the Quiet Zone?

Then, there’s Green Bank itself, a small census-designated community of 200–including many employees with the Green Bank Observatory–with a public library, a fire department and an elementary school. Mulasky says that many of the stories about the community and its relationship with modern technology is a complex tale.

“Hundreds of thousands of people live in the Quiet Zone and don’t realize it,” said Malusky, “because of the way the Quiet Zone works in those parts only really impacts industry. There’s cell phone service. There’s Wi-Fi. There’s every modern amenity you can think of. The only way we monitor the Quiet Zone is when a new cell phone tower or some sort of technology that’s being put up that’s really ‘loud’ or really powerful, we have engineers that work with them to make sure that it points away from our telescopes.

“There are still some local misunderstandings about what causes us to be so quiet or so cut-off,” said Mulasky. “It’s a mix of both, ‘We have this scientific facility that uses the National Radio Quiet Zone,’ and also that [Green Bank is] a very small, remote, rural, Appalachian town; we don’t have a lot of access to resources. We don’t have a lot of business or industry that would’ve come into the area to give us more.”

Mulasky says that most things on the ground don’t affect the observatory. Instead, it’s objects in the sky, like radio communications from satellites and airplanes, currently delivering the most impact upon the Green Bank Observatory. Thus, with help from the National Science Foundation, the observatory created the National Radio Dynamic Zone around two years ago to work with engineers of such skyborne communications to mitigate any complications that could come up between the telescopes and the overhead radio wavelengths, mainly by having the satellites and aircraft passing over briefly turn off their radios.

Mulasky adds that living in a world where everything is transmitting radio signals all of the time means innovating wherever possible, including software. The observatory’s software engineers are working on filters and programs that can see the interference caused by things like smartphones and smartwatches to filter it out.

“Radio astronomy not only involves what you think of as traditional scientists or even traditional technicians to do the physical work,” said Mulasky. “There’s also tons of software and programming that goes into it. For the past few years, our software teams have been trying to think of different sorts of ‘filters,’ or software programs they can use that can see the interference that’s caused by anything we’re talking about, and just filter it out. We don’t have that technology yet, but we know that it’s important. We’re working on it now, and I would say in 20 years, we’ll surely have that by then. A problem like [filtering radio interference] can’t take 20 years to solve.”

Perhaps by then, the NRQZ will be a quieter place with EVs traversing the roadways, the sound of wind and, now and again, the clatter of diesel engines breaking the silence.