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Byrd Green Bank Telescope eyed for 'divestment'

GREEN BANK, W.Va.-- Fully operational for only 10 years, the $95 million Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in Pocahontas County is now being considered for "divestment" by a committee appointed by the National Science Foundation to guide it through expected budget cuts.

According to a report released Thursday by the National Science Foundation Astronomy Portfolio Review Committee, the NSF should drop its financial support for the Green Bank Telescope, the Very Long Baseline Array based in Socorro, N.M., and all four federally operated telescopes at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona by the 2017 fiscal year.

"Divestment from these highly successful, long-running facilities will be difficult for all of us in the astronomical community," the report concluded. "We must, however, consider the science tradeoff between divesting existing facilities and the risk of devastating cuts to individual research grants, mid-scale projects, and new initiatives."

While the report recommends eliminating funding for the telescopes in West Virginia and Arizona, and the 10-scope array headquartered in New Mexico, it also recommends moving forward with plans to build the new $390 million Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in Chile "as soon as possible."

The LSST is a wide-field optical telescope that will be paired with the world's largest digital camera. It will be capable of surveying the entire visible sky in multiple colors every week, allowing scientist to learn more about the nature of "dark energy" and "dark matter." It also will open a movie-like window on objects that change or move rapidly, such as exploding supernovas or near-Earth asteroids.

Site preparation work and mirror construction for the LSST already are under way. Full build-out is expected to take at least five years.

The review committee based its recommendations on two possible budget scenarios. The more optimistic scenario envisions funding at 90 percent of what was available during the 2011 fiscal year and rising to 106 percent of the 2011 budget by the 2022 fiscal year. The more pessimistic view projects funding dropping to 80 percent of 2011 levels by 2015 and remaining flat through 2022.

According to a joint statement released by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and Associated Universities Inc., the operators of the Green Bank Telescope and the Very Long Baseline Array, the two organizations "acknowledge the need to retire obsolete facilities to make way for the state-of-the-art. However, both the GBT and the VLBA are 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."

The VLBA is a network of 10 25-meter radio telescopes, stretching from Hawaii to New Hampshire, and operated remotely from a control center in Socorro, N.M.

The Green Bank Telescope, according to the joint statement, "is the largest and most capable fully steerable single-dish radio telescope in the world. It is a cutting-edge research instrument at the height of its powers, and it is continually growing more capable through the introduction of low-cost upgrades to its light detecting and processing electronics."

The 16-million-pound telescope "is able to precisely point its 2.3 acres of light-collecting surface area anywhere within all but the southernmost 15 percent of the celestial sphere," and is used "by astronomers and students around the world for important research."

Such research includes searching out the molecular building blocks of life in space, probing the nature of matter at extreme densities and mapping diffused clouds of intergalactic gas invisible to other telescopes. The GBT also has been used to find and examine pulsars and other "beacons in space that can serve as mileposts for calibrating our understanding cosmic distance scales and the characteristics of Dark Energy," according to the statement, and to "detect gravity waves first predicted by Einstein."

The annual cost of operating the Green Bank Telescope equates to 0.7 percent of the annual federal budget for astronomy and astrophysics, according to the NRAO. Low-cost technology upgrades installed since it began its schedule of scientific observations in 2003 have made it more than 10 times more powerful, and new upgrades could boost its strength even more.

"With a flat budget, we anticipated that the portfolio review committee would recommend some facility closures," said Karen O'Neil, site director for the Green Bank Observatory, "but for them to consider listing for divestiture such a relatively new instrument that costs less than 1 percent of the national astronomy and astrophysics budget to operate -- it was quite surprising. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me."

Can the Green Bank Telescope continue to operate without NSF funding?

"We believe we can find a way to keep the GBT alive," O'Neil said. "The people here know we're going to continue to push forward."

Barring a congressional increase in funding to the NSF sufficient to eliminate the need to drop Green Bank from its program, the NRAO likely would turn to universities and other research entities for support to keep the giant telescope operating.

Such a partnership could force the observatory to drop its current policy of making Green Bank open to any researcher submitting a plan deemed worthy of observation time, O'Neil said.

State support also could be sought in an effort to keep the telescope operating.

Now that the NSF has officially accepted the report of the portfolio review committee, it is expected to announce an implementation plan by December, according to O'Neil.

According to the statement released by the NRAO and Associated Universities, the NSF's final decision on the recommendations should "involve considerations beyond just the question of what can be cut from a particular funding agency's budget to make room for something new in that same agency's budget."

Any recommendations accepted by the NSF "should ensure that students have ready access to training and instrumentation opportunities at world-class, U.S.-based facilities," according to the statement. The recommendations also should preserve irreplaceable national research facilities that maintain "U.S. leadership in optical, radio and solar astrophysics."

On Friday, NRAO personnel were meeting with representatives of West Virginia's congressional delegation in Washington to brief them on the plan to cut funding for Green Bank. State officials are expected to receive similar briefings next week.

"Even though nobody is questioning the value of the GBT," O'Neil said, "it will take a lot of help from the community and the state to keep moving forward with it."

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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