The end of the road
for Big Ear radio telescope
By David Lore
December 21, 1997
Editorial corrections will be shown in red.
The pulsars give way to the putters this month as the bulldozers close in on the Big Ear radio telescope south of Delaware, Ohio, as part of a golf course expansion.
Ohio State University's lease expires Dec. 31 and by spring, all that will probably be left of the giant star-chaser will be old photographs, some souvenir scraps of relector screen and the two-volume history written by its builder, OSU emeritus professor John D. Kraus.
Few central Ohioans have even seen the telescope, which since 1956 has occupied a secluded, 24-acre site behind the Perkins Observatory east of Rt. 23.
That's too bad, because it is recognized worldwide for its pioneering role in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), even sited for its role in the Guiness Book of Records.
"Big Ear," wrote Kraus two decades ago, "is our adventure story of the exploration of the universe and the search for other men. A universe so vast and mysterious it boggles the mind. An astounding, baffling, stranger-than-fiction universe of pulsars, quasars and black holes."
It's also the story of how Kraus and a cadre of committed volunteers built and operated a world-class radio telescope over four decades with little institutional support.
The National Science Foundation originally provided $400,000 to build the telescope, but Kraus notes that more than a third of it went to cover OSU's overhead rather than actual construction. [Those of you taxpayers should know that your hard earned $400,000 in tax dollars are being bulldozed into the ground. There was nothing wrong with the telescope. In addition, OSU decided to abandon other equipment at the site and let it be bulldozed as well.]
Because only limited money was available, Kraus - an electrical engineer who had built several smaller radio telecsopes on the OSU campus - designed an entirely new type of structure to maximize signal-gathering power at minimum cost.
Big Ear, the first so-called "Kraus-type" instrument, consists of two flat reflectors - 70 feet and 100 feet tall respectively - facing one another across a 3.5-acre aluminum ground plane. [Not quite correct. A tiltable flat reflector 340' long x 100' high faces a parabolic reflector which is 360' long x 70' high.]
Under Kraus' supervision, the telescope was built between 1956 and 1963 by a dedicated crew of OSU engineering students, most of them working for $1.40 an hour.
The OSU College of Engineering helped maintain the site and the National Science Foundation initially supported the telescope's sky-mapping program.
Foundation funding ended in 1972, a major blow to the future of the telescope. Big Ear's SETI search began the following year, but NASA grants were never large, and Congress terminated the program in 1994.
Big Ear's operating budget since the 1960's never exceeded $50,000 a year, Kraus said.
"Other people had enough money to build expensive telescopes," recalled Kraus. "We didn't, and we never got much credit for doing so much on a small budget."
In 1983, Ohio Wesleyan officials - under the impression OSU intended to abandon the instrument - sold the land to golf course developers.
This derailment of science for sport drew worldwide news media attention and condemnation from celestial luminaries such as the late Carl Sagan and science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. [Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke made another attempt to save the telescope in 1996. They sent letters of protest to Dr. Gordon Gee at OSU, who did not even acknowledge the letters.]
In central Ohio, "Save Big Ear" T-shirts went on sale to raise money to buy the site, and a telescope preservation group was organized. The outcry persuaded OSU to negotiate a new lease that kept Big Ear in business for another decade.
But Kraus, now 87, remains caustic about central Ohio's priorities.
"In a confrontation between golf and the exploration of the universe, the galaxy does not stand a chance," he commented earlier this year.
Kraus recalled the telescope's accomplishments - the thousands of stars and quasars discovered and cataloged, the SETI search, the students trained and inspired - hoping that Big Ear will at least be praised in its passing.
And, in fact, the Kraus model lives on even as the telescope is abandoned.
French astronomers, impressed by Kraus' design, spent $16 million to build a larger version at the Nancay Radio Observatory south of Paris. That radio telescope, dedicated by French President Charles de Gaulle in 1965, is undergoing a major renovation.
The Russians operate two Kraus-type telescopes, Kraus said.
"To probe yet further and to learn more about the vast space between us and the edge are challenges that will eternally kindle man's curiosity as long as he is man," wrote Kraus in the epilogue to his second volume, Big Ear Two: Listening for Other Worlds. "Astronomy presents man with the universe as his total environment and his endless frontier."