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WVU considering a partnership to help bolster Green Bank observatory

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Nearly one year after the National Science Foundation announced it was considering dropping financial support for the $95 million Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, there was cause for optimism at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Pocahontas County on Monday.

In recent weeks, West Virginia University has expressed an interest in exploring a potential minority partnership in the observatory, which would allow WVU researchers to enhance their astronomy research and education. On Monday, WVU officials met with NRAO staff members, along with Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Rep. Nick Rahall, both D-W.Va., to discuss the possible partnership.

"West Virginia University is in the process of working with us on a potential new agreement for the next couple of years, while we look to the future," NRAO Site Director Karen O'Neil said after the meeting.

While no formal pact has been signed, "We've taken a few steps forward and are moving in a very positive direction," O'Neil said. "The mood in the room today was extremely optimistic."

"West Virginia University is committed to building a strong partnership with the Green Bank Observatory based upon several WVU faculty hires over the past several years," Fred King, the university's vice president of research, said in a statement released after the meeting.

"The university is committed to be an international leader in radio astronomy," King continued. "We see a continued strong relationship with NRAO and the Green Bank Observatory as a key part of our international leadership."

Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which oversees the National Science Foundation, called the observatory "a state treasure" in a statement following the meeting.

"The Green Bank Observatory is more than a hub of world-class scientific research -- it's a source of enormous and lasting pride for the people of West Virginia," Rockefeller said.

Rahall said he was glad WVU "has stepped forward and is committed to building a strong partnership with the observatory." Rahall earlier termed it "ridiculous" to abandon the Green Bank Telescope, a $95 million investment that has been fully operational for only 11 years.

Last August, the National Science Foundation's Astronomy Portfolio Review Committee released a report recommending that the NSF "divest" itself of the "highly successful" Green Bank Telescope by the 2017 fiscal year, because of budgetary constraints.

The 16-million-pound telescope, according to the NRAO, "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." Astronomers and students around the world use the GBT to chart the molecular building blocks of life in space, to probe the nature of matter at extreme densities, and to map diffused clouds of intergalactic gas invisible to other telescopes.

The GBT has also been used to find and examine pulsars and other "beacons in space that can serve as mileposts for calibrating our understanding of cosmic distance scales and the characteristics of Dark Energy," according to the NRAO.

"We've by no means solved the problem," O'Neill said after Monday's meeting, "but I think we are a lot closer now than we were several months ago."

The Associated Press contributed. Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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