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Green Bank Observatory tour

James Jackson (left), the new director of the Green Bank Observatory, takes in the view from atop the Green Bank Telescope with Dennis Egan, the observatory’s mechanical division chief.

Ten years ago, a 10-year review of federally funded astronomy projects and infrastructure was released by the National Academy of Science, concluding that the research then being done at the Green Bank Observatory was less aligned with newly identified research priorities than other observatories.

In light of a stagnant budget, the review recommended the National Science Foundation stop funding Green Bank and two other observatories, and remove them from its portfolio of research sites.

Earlier this month, the Academy released a new 10-year review to update the one it issued in 2011.

“This one had a very different outcome,” said James Jackson, the new director of the Pocahontas County observatory. The new decadal review, Jackson said, lists research priorities with which the observatory is already deeply engaged, and considers Green Bank “essential to astronomy in the next decade.”

The 2010 decadal review set in motion a plan by the National Science Foundation to gradually phase out funding to Green Bank and sever its ties to the observatory by the end of 2016. That plan was later modified to allow for continued, but reduced, funding beyond 2016, while an environmental impact study examined possible future uses of the observatory. Options ranged from the Foundation keeping the observatory and continuing the partial funding arrangement to mothballing or even deconstructing the facility.

Instead of waiting for the federal agency to decide its fate, the observatory’s staff launched a campaign to seek new partners, both private and public, to pay for observation time and help cover operating costs. By 2019, Green Bank had attracted $4.3 million in new business, covering about 35% of its operating budget.

In 2019, the Foundation opted to retain its affiliation with Green Bank and, along the observatory’s new partners, maintain a funding stream to the observatory.

The newly released decadal review shows the Green Bank Observatory “is more important than ever” to scientific research, according to Jackson, thanks in large part to the work performed by the observatory, and its new partners, in response to the earlier report.

Research priorities listed in the new 10-year review include learning more about black holes and the explosive events that created them, gaining a better understanding about what happened in the earliest moments of the universe, and learning more about star formation and the origin of galaxies.

Green Bank’s partners include the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves. It uses the Green Bank Telescope to monitor an array of pulsars — rapidly rotating neutron stars — in an effort to detect gravitational waves, from which more can be learned about the origin and expansion of the universe.

A partnership with West Virginia University formed during the past decade has led, among other things, to the development of a new phased array camera that allows the Green Bank Telescope to conduct galactic mapping surveys at seven times its previous speed. It also allows the telescope search for pulsars two to three times faster than before.

A $1.7 million National Science Foundation grant awarded last year to Kevin Bandura, a WVU computer science assistant professor, led to the start of construction in July of a new “Outrigger” telescope at Green Bank.

Shaped like a half-pipe used by snowboarders and skateboarders, the 200-foot-long wire mesh instrument will be used by the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, or CHIME, to detect fast radio bursts in distant galaxies. Fast radio bursts are among the brightest objects ever observed by astronomers, but blaze for only a millisecond before disappearing.

To learn more about their nature, CHIME is adding Outrigger scopes at Green Bank and the Hat Creek Observatory in California to operate in conjunction with its existing telescope at Kaleden, British Columbia, to triangulate observations for enhanced accuracy.

Three new 18 meter telescopes will be built at Green Bank as part of a billion-dollar Next Generation Very Long Array proposal recommended for funding in the new decadal survey. Green Bank’s three 18-meter telescopes would be part of a linked network of 244 similar telescopes stretching from California to New Hampshire to provide unprecedented sensitivity to distant observations.

Jackson said plans are being made to outfit the Green Bank Telescope with a radar transmitter to engage in radar astronomy research involving less distant targets, such as planets and asteroids.

Meanwhile, the observatory will continue and expand research called for in the 2020 decadal review, including pulsar timing and the search for gravitational waves, the search for biochemical signatures of life, the origin and evolution of stars and galaxies, and the effects of time on astronomical objects.

The observatory has sufficient funding from the National Science Foundation and its partners to continue operating “for the foreseeable future,” he said, while Green Bank’s favorable treatment in the new decadal review enhances prospects for additional funding from new sources in coming years.

Jackson, an astrophysicist, began work as Green Bank’s director in October, replacing Karen O’Neil, who directed operations at the observatory for the previous 15 years. O’Neil remains a member of the observatory’s scientific staff.

A native of Pennsylvania and a graduate of Penn State, Jackson did his postgraduate work at MIT and later taught at Boston University. During his tenure at BU, Jackson also served as assistant director of the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica, where he installed a radio-telescope and spent several six-week research sessions at South Pole Station.

He later led the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Newcastle in Australia, and immediately before taking charge at Green Bank, served as associate director of research for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.

Prior to his appointment as director, Jackson’s research on star formation on a number of occasions brought him to the Green Bank Observatory, where he used the Green Bank Telescope to map ammonia emissions and chart temperature information.

“I became familiar with the observatory’s science facilities and got to know its staff,” he said. “I’ve always admired the sense of community that’s found here, and now I get to be part of it.”

The staff at Green Bank “is very professional, but also warm and welcoming,” Jackson said. “I want this to be my last job. I’m not young, but I intend to oversee observations through the bulk of this decade. There’s a lot of potential for bigger discoveries here.”

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

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