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Save that Great Big Thing: NSF recommends "divesting" Green Bank Telescope

by Sarah Scoles


I returned from my nearly internetless vacation only to find that the results from the NSF Portfolio Review had come in. The Portfolio Review was tasked with determining how to rearrange the NSF Astronomy budget given the financial scenarios of a flat budget and a decreasing budget. The best-case, flat budget is only 65% of what was expected when the Decadal Survey presented recommendations about which projects should be funded in the next 10 years. The worst-case, decreasing budget is only 50% of the Decadal Survey projection.

To make funds more available for new projects (like ALMA and the LSST) and to fund more small grants, the Portfolio Review recommended shutting down the Green Bank Telescope. Which is, you know, where I work.

Are you cool enough to know acronyms? (Credit: SmashingMagazine)At this point, I should include phrases like "In my very own personal opinion" and "Speaking for myself." So, speaking for myself and my very personal opinion and no other people or organizations, I thought that those who support science in general, astronomy in particular, radio astronomy in general, the GBT in particular, the community of Green Bank, and meaningful scientific experiences for young students might be interested in some talking points--reasons the GBT is worth saving, reasons you could give to your dubious grandmother or your congresspeople.

First, here are links to the reports and official responses:

Here is a link to the NSF Portfolio Review.

Here is NRAO/AUI's official initial response, which includes the statement, "AUI and NRAO recognize and acknowledge the need to retire  obsolete facilities to make way for the state-of-the-art. However, both the GBT and the VLBA are the state-of-the-art, and have crucial capabilities that cannot be provided by other facilities. Separately the two telescopes provide unparalleled scientific access to the universe. When their information is combined, the instruments provide the highest sensitivity and resolution available for any astronomical instrument in the world."

And here is a statement of support from WV's Senators, Rockefeller and Manchin, and Congressman Rahall, who said, "We are not going to give up on a world-class facility that aids our State and serves this Nation without a fight."

Sign the petition to save Green Bank at Change.org.

(Or, even better, do that and then write a strongly worded, but polite, letter to your representatives. The petition above includes a letter template.)

This is my friend who loves the GBT and who I hope doesn't mind that I stuck his picture in here without asking.

Why save the Green Bank Telescope?

Scientific Reasons

Some projects the GBT does cannot be done at other telescopes. For instance,

  • No other telescope covers, with the sensitivity of the GBT, frequencies as low or as high in the radio spectrum. Without the GBT, certain windows to the universe will be closed.
  • No other telescope can both find and time millisecond pulsars, a pursuit which could lead to the detection of gravitational waves (and, probably, the Nobel Prize).
  • No other telescope can match the GBT's sensitivity to the faint spectral lines of molecules in space, including complex organic ones that are necessary for the development of life.
  • The GBT is the best in its class at detecting faint, diffuse hydrogen gas in space, gas that tells us about the true structure of the universe and how it came to look the way it does today.
  • Two separate, large radio telescopes are required for radar studies of solar system objects like near-earth asteroids. Without the GBT, there is only one suitable telescope in the US (Arecibo).

Educational Reasons 

  • The Green Bank Telescope site hosts numerous educational programs, including the West Virginia Governor's School for Math and Science, the Pulsar Search Collaboratory, the Radio Astronomer for a Day program, field trip experiences, and conferences such as StarQuest and the Society of Amateur Radio Astronomers. These programs give students, teachers, and regular-old adults the tools to explore the universe, and they affect thousands of people each year.

Semi-Political Reasons

  • The cost to run the GBT for one year is only 2% of the cost of one F-22 Raptor.
  • The kinds of results that come out of single-dish radio telescopes will come out of telescopes in other countries, such as Germany, Australia, and Great Britain. The US will have greatly reduced its scientific competitiveness in this arena.

Technological Reasons

  • Once a telescope is gone, if you want to do the things that telescope used to do, you have to build another telescope. We already have this one. Divesting it and then deciding later that we care about precision single-dish radio astronomy will cost a lot more--in terms of dollars, lost time, missed scientific results, and lags in technology--than continuing to fund the GBT.
  • Innovation in American radio astronomy will suffer. The telescopes remaining at the NRAO are interferometers (telescopes made of multiple antennas)--to test a new receiver or system on the VLA or ALMA, you will need to build 28 or 66 of them in order to even test whether or not they work. In addition to being a pain, that costs a lot of money.
  • We have official collaborations with 18 universities that depend on our knowledge and ability to, you know, help produce instruments and put them on the telescope. These universities, because of the bullet above, will not be able to afford co-development with a new, GBT-less NRAO.

Job-related Reasons

  • 600 astronomers put in proposals to use the GBT last year. Given that there are only about 10,000 astronomers total in the world, that's a big chunk of the community.
  • If the observatory is non-federally funded, or if it is not funded at all and astronomers turn to other telescopes, the observatory and/or those telescopes will not have an "open skies" policy. "Open skies" means that anyone can apply to use the telescopes, and the only thing between you and the control room is the scientific merit of your proposal. In other countries, and on privately funded telescopes, the sky is not so open, and time is often based on affiliation or citizenship.
  • The GBT did 6,600 hours of observations last year. That's 6,600 hours--necessary for publishing papers--that hundreds of astronomers will now have to get elsewhere. The loss of this much potential observing time will lead to oversubscription on other telescopes, meaning that many people who need to do observations to keep their jobs will not be able to do observations, meaning that they may not be able to keep their jobs or, at the very least, will not be competitive.
  • And what will the scarcity of observing hours do to radio astronomy graduate students and their ability to complete theses that will allow them to get jobs (maybe) later?
  • The observatory is the fourth-largest employer in the area. Divesting it means many people move away, or that they stay and vie for the minimal, often seasonal, other jobs in the county. The few businesses in Green Bank probably would not be able to survive, so even more jobs would be lost. The people who work at the observatory also coach soccer teams and build libraries and put on the county science fair and various festivals. And they have spouses who teach at the schools and contribute to the art coop and work at the libraries. The community would suffer greatly if there were no more GBT.

Those are a few reasons. Feel free to contribute more in the comments.

For a roundup of media coverage of the Review, see this post.

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Reader Comments (7)

Thanks, Sarah. This helped me understand more of what GBT does, and why we need to keep it.

August 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWoodie

Thank you so much for this Sarah!

August 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJerry Beck

I'd just like to touch on one subject that your article doesn't cover and that is the local volunteer rescue squad. I should first state that I am both a member of NRAO staff and an active member of the rescue squad. Currently the local rescue squad 's officers include a number of NRAO staff or their spouses. The assistant fire chief is a member of NRAO staff, the last deputy fire chief was a member of NRAO staff, the current rescue chief and assistant rescue chief are both spouses of NRAO staff. No less than 4 of the more active EMTs are members of NRAO staff. Until the recent, and regrettable, RIF the most active ambulance driver was a member of NRAO staff (He is still just as active thank goodness) and many other members of NRAO staff and their spouses are active and valued members of the squad. As things currently stand the Green Bank station of the Bartow, Frank and Durbin volunteer fire and rescue squad would likely become considerably less effective in serving it's community were the GBT to be "divested" forcing many of the staff to move away.

Both the initial report and it's immediate follow ups have largely ignored the cost to the local community and this is something that cannot be ignored. I have focussed on the contributions that NRAO staff make to the local volunteer rescue squad but the effects on EMS services go further. Training opportunities for emergency medical technicians in the local area consist solely of an annual class given by the spouse of an NRAO staff member at the classroom provided gratis by the NRAO education and public outreach division. The same person is also responsible for the bulk of the statutorily required ongoing training of the local EMS personnel. A rural community without an adequate supply of suitably trained volunteer emergency medical technicians has a real problem. Should the GBT be "divested" this could become a real and ongoing problem for what is left of the local community.

August 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChris Clark

One thing this report also does is it sends a message that we are not reliable partners. Potential collaborators have to have in the back of their minds that if they throw their lot into a partnership on an NSF funded new instrument project that they might be left high and dry in just a few short years as the NSF "divests" itself of the new instrument. (How I hate euphemisms...)

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRamon Creager

When someone would like to get specific about teachers, and please correct me if I am wrong, but I think there are 8 teachers in our small community that are married to NRAO employees. At PCHS 2/3 of the science department, the entire foreign language department (me) and the building construction teacher. At MES, a reading specialist, at GBEMS, one Kindergarten, one 2nd grade and PE. Also NRAO was just given a wonderful community award for helping during the DERECHO and a few years ago with the armed forces helicopter going down. In addition, NRAO provides a space for a local daycare which serves both NRAO and non-NRAO families. Hope this helps a bit! Gracias again Sarah for your blog!!

August 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMali Minter

Sarah, this is an excellent, thoughtful, clearly-articulated analysis of the value of the GBT. Thanks for sharing it.

August 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIsaac Rosen

Thanks for the excellent and informative post. I am not a member of NRAO, but I have been to the Green Bank facility several times, and I am truly impressed by the work that is being done there. I remember hearing that the GBT is the largest moving object on land, and yet has a surface precision on the order of a tenth of a millimeter. I also understand that NRAO in Charlottesville (engineering support for the GBT and others) builds the most sensitive receivers in the world. Please add to the discussion that the GBT is a marvel in mechanical and electrical enginnering - an object that is so large that it's surface deformation has to be counteracted by over 2000 servos.

There is no way that the person(s) who made the suggestion to defund the GBT considered all of the facts. I hope that these person(s) are made aware of the consequences of closing the GBT.

August 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDave Cohen

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