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Astrophysicist James Jackson has been named the new director of the Green Bank Observatory, replacing Karen O’Neil, who has directed operations at the Pocahontas County radio-astronomy research center for the past 15 years, the observatory announced Tuesday.

Jackson most recently served as associate director for research for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy — a Boeing 747 equipped with a reflecting telescope that makes observations at altitudes of up to 45,000 feet to avoid atmospheric interference with infrared signals.

Jackson, who earned his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also led administration and research in astronomy and astrophysics at Boston University and Australia’s University of Newcastle, and served as assistant director of the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica.

O’Neil navigated Green Bank’s transition to its role as an independent observatory in 2016, after its long-time affiliation with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory system was cut. During her tenure, the observatory played a key role in advancing gravitational wave research, detecting and monitoring Fast Radio Bursts and Repeating Radio Bursts, and discovering the most massive neutron star ever detected.

Since 2015, the observatory’s Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope has been one of two primary instruments used by Project Breakthrough Listen to scan the universe for signs of technology indicating the presence of intelligent life.

O’Neil, who earned her doctorate in astrophysics at the University of Oregon, joined the staff at Green Bank in 2003 as an assistant scientist. She will return to the observatory’s scientific staff after Jackson assumes the director’s role, according to a release from the observatory.

Jackson frequently used the Green Bank Telescope in conducting his research and is familiar with the observatory’s staff and resources. He is expected to begin work at the site in mid-October.

Jackson praised the observatory and its staff for “providing pre-eminent capabilities to the radio astronomy community and in producing world-class science.” He said he looks forward to continued growth of the observatory’s resources and working “to secure a stable and productive future” for the facility.

Rick Steelhammer is a features reporter. He can be reached at 304-348-5169 or rsteelhammer@hdmediallc

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