The field of radio astronomy began in the 1930s when Karl Jansky began searching for noise at certain frequencies detected by short wave radio receivers. Bell Labs had been working on establishing transatlantic radio telephone service. Jansky, while working at Bell Labs, noticed a regular hissing or sizzling static that he couldn’t explain. In 1932 Jansky found that the source of that noise, cosmic radio waves, as he called them, to be coming from the center of our very own Milky Way Galaxy. This discovery was so newsworthy at the time that it was published on the front page of newspapers from coast to coast.

Grote Reber, grew up in Chicago, and after school he worked for several radio manufacturers in the Chicago area. Reber was fascinated by Jansky’s discovery and wanted to find out if there were more radio sources like Jansky had found.   In 1937, Reber finished building the world’s first radio telescope in his back yard in Wheaton, Illinois.

By the mid 1950s proposals for a research facility were floating around and in late 1956 was created and the National Science Foundation began the purchase of several thousand acres of land around Greenbank, West Virginia. Greenbank is in what is known as the National Radio Quiet Zone, a large area of very restricted radio transmissions. Cell phones, microwave ovens, TV and radio transmitters are all sources of radio frequency interference or RFI and can affect the research being done.

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 40-year-old diesel cars and trucks the only vehicles allowed near the telescopes

Modern cars and trucks significantly disturb the Radio Telescope. 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.

More interesting to Checker fans is the fact that the observatory purchased Checker diesels back in the late fifties. For 1968 Checker would introduce the Perkins diesel to the US consumer car market.

Diesel Wagon used by the observatory in 2009

The Checker flyer would herald that the Checker Diesel was the first and only American built diesel powered car.  Technically this was not correct as Studebaker did sell some Larks equipped with Perkins diesels in 1963.

The diesel brochure highlighted many aspects of the Checker diesel: powered by the Perkins 4.236 diesel engine, was designed and engineered to be among the most economical American-built cars on the road.

The Checker Model D12 had a maximum brake horsepower of 88 @ 2800 rpm. Total displacement of 235.9 cubic inches  and weighed 700 LBS with all accessories.

By the mid 1980, US diesel cars production stopped.   Unfortunately, this has put the observatory in the position of having to maintaining a very old fleet.

Checker on display at the Observatory Visitor Center

The observatory can’t update 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.

Today, the observatory has put the Checker out to pasture. At least one ICTA member has saved one of the observatory Checkers. We’ll share the story in another blog.