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 rsteelham...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.