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Goodbye, Green Bank Telescope?

Courtesy photo
The Green Bank Telescope, located at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Pocahontas County, is the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope. The National Science Foundation is considering closing the facility and a few others across the country for budgetary reasons.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is an essential part of Pocahontas County. Since 1961, when it opened the first fully automatic radio telescope, the NRAO has filtered in tourism, jobs and money. It's a national landmark and a major research center with contacts around the world.

Not only this, but students in Pocahontas County can say that the NRAO is a part of their childhood. It is a place where they have taken school field trips, and it has been the main topic of their astronomy lessons in science classes.

Now the question remains: Why would anyone want to shut down the NRAO?

It seems unrealistic that the National Science Foundation would cut funding for a place that means so much to so man people, but it's more like killing two birds with one stone. In shutting down the NRAO, the NSF gains three new telescopes in Chile.

Unfortunately, the removal of the NRAO and its state-of-the-art telescope would most likely rob the United States of another research facility such as this one. Also, the United States would probably never gain another high power telescope like the Green Bank Telescope.

Some may find this outrageous. Just when the government complains that the United States is falling behind other countries in education -- especially math and science -- the NSF makes major budget cuts to a world-renowned science facility.

The budget cuts would prevent any school students, college graduates or interested astronomers from using the NRAO and its equipment.

In 2009, Lucas Bolyard, then a sophomore at South Harrison High School in Clarksburg, found a rare star called a pulsar with the help of the NRAO and its research facilities. He was invited to the White House because of his achievement. Without the NRAO, an achievement and an honor like that would not have occurred.

Scientists, astronomers, accountants, managers and interns would all be at a loss for a job if the NRAO were closed. At Pocahontas County High School, many people have connections to the NRAO.

Mrs. Kathryn White, a science teacher and soccer coach, said, "I feel like the closing of the NRAO would be a huge loss to educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math."

If the NRAO were closed, she said, "It would mean that I would be leaving Pocahontas County."

She would not be the only one. If the NRAO were to close and people had to go elsewhere to find jobs, Pocahontas County's population would dwindle immensely.

"To lose the NRAO would be a disaster to the economy, and it would hurt our school system," said the school's principal, Thomas Sanders. "The NRAO is a business partner that has helped Pocahontas County High School and Green Bank Elementary and Middle School. It would be a loss of a mentorship site for high school students.

"Losing the NRAO would have a tremendous adverse effect on this county."

The culprit for this travesty is an NSF committee report based on decadal surveys by the National Academy of Sciences regarding astronomy and astrophysics and also planetary sciences. In August, the committee delivered devastating statistics: the data showed that closing the NRAO and a few other facilities would enable the NSF to fund three more telescopes in Chile.

This is exactly what the NSF is now considering, obviously not taking into account the consequences of its actions on the world, let alone Pocahontas County.

Shutting down the NRAO would deplete the world of a scientific treasure. The NSF will make its final decision -- a decision that will decide the fate of Pocahontas County and the entire science community -- by December. A petition has been created in support of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. To find out more about the issue and sign the petition, visit www.savethegbt.org.


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