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Funding for Green Bank Observatory falls

As expected, the National Science Foundation doesn’t fully fund the Green Bank Observatory in its latest budget, but the budget does include partial funding to help operate the Pocahontas County research facility outside the National Radio Astronomy Observatory system.

An NSF review committee recommended in 2012 that the foundation divest Green Bank and another radio astronomy facility, the Very Long Baseline Array, from its inventory of observatories by 2017. Money was part of the problem, but the committee also said the two sites did not accommodate long-range research goals as well as other NRAO facilities.

The Green Bank Observatory and the VLBA, a series of 10 identical linked radio-telescopes stretching from Hawaii to New Hampshire, will be dropped from the NRAO facilities inventory for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1. However, the NSF did include $11.5 million for the two sites to share, to help them continue operating as they develop new partnerships with telescope users. Currently, it costs about $20 million annually to operate the GBO and the VLBA.

The $11.5 million — which, according to a budget footnote, remains under review by the NSF — would extend through September 2018, and would be extended for an additional five years at diminishing levels as new partnerships and financial arrangements with radio-telescope users are developed.

“We have to make up the difference between what we receive [from the NSF] now and what is proposed over the long run,” said Mike Holstine, business manager for the Green Bank Observatory. “[The] NSF hasn’t given us a specific amount to acquire, yet, but we’re expecting something like 35 percent funding from them.”

During the current fiscal year, the two observatories developed new partnerships that brought in about $6 million, according to the budget request.

Green Bank’s clients include the Russian space agency’s RadioAstron project, which uses a satellite-based radio telescope with a 10-meter dish that links with Green Bank’s 43-meter telescope to download observations when the orbiting telescope passes out of view from its Moscow Earth station. RadioAstron also uses the observatory’s centerpiece, the 100-meter Green Bank Telescope, as part of a linked array of radio-telescopes known as an interferometer to obtain high-resolution data for use in studying quasars, cosmic masers and interstellar space.

The Green Bank Telescope is one of two radio telescopes being used in a five-year, $14.5 million study by NANOgrav, the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves, which observes pulsars in an effort to detect new sources of gravitational waves.

Starting this year, Breakthrough Listen, a 10-year project bankrolled by billionaire Russian Internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner, will begin using nearly 20 percent of the Green Bank Telescope’s 6,500 hours of annual observation time to search the nearest million stars in our Milky Way galaxy, as well as selected stars in 100 other galaxies, for radio signatures indicating the presence of an advanced civilization. The biggest-ever search for extraterrestrial intelligence will pump $2 million a year into the Green Bank Observatory during the next 10 years.

In recent years, scientists involved in extraterrestrial intelligence searches have made do with less than 40 hours of radio-telescope observation time annually. Breakthrough Listen will make thousands of hours of SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) observations possible each year.

In 1960, the Green Bank Observatory was the site of the world’s first scientific SETI search, a two-month effort that focused on Earth’s two closest sun-like stars. It produced no contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, but it did establish protocols for SETI searches that continued in the decades that followed.

Green Bank also was the birthplace of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory system. The NRAO opened its first observatory in the Deer Creek Valley, just west of the town of Green Bank, 60 years ago and completed work on the 85-foot Tatel radio-telescope, the observatory’s first, in 1959.

The West Virginia observatory’s Green Bank Telescope, completed in 2000, is the world’s largest fully steerable telescope, capable of precisely directing its 23-acre light-collecting surface to all but the southernmost 15 percent of the celestial sphere. Its wide range of observational wavelengths and its high resolution enables scientists from around the world to search the universe for the building blocks of life by detecting gases in distant galaxies and interstellar molecules.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5169, or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

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