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Green bank goes independent.

OCTOBER 8TH marked the dawn of a new era for the radio astronomy observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. What was once the flagship facility of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) is now an autonomous institution.

Green Bank's new independence makes the best of a bad situation. For the last 60 years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded the observatory as part of the NRAO network, which includes other facilities in the United States and Chile. But in 2012, the NSF--trying to balance its tightening budget (S&T: Dec. 2012, p. 34)--decided to let Green Bank go.

This came as no small shock to the folks at Green Bank, which is home to the world's largest steerable, single-dish radio telescope (pictured above). Deprived of its primary source of funding, the observatory was scheduled to shut down on October 1, 2016.

But Green Bank staff and the NSF hammered out a plan to transform the former national observatory into an independent institution. Instead of cutting Green Bank off completely in 2016, the NSF now plans to gradually wean the observatory off federal funds. In 2017, the NSF will grant Green Bank 60% of its previous annual budget, which amounts to about $8 million. In 2018, Green Bank can count on $4 million. After that, the NSF makes no promises of financial support. "We know that they want to continue funding us at some level, but we don't know what that will be," says Michael Holstine, Green Bank Observatory's business manager.

To compensate for dwindling NSF funds, Green Bank has signed contracts with science initiatives that pay to make observations with the 100-meter-wide Green Bank Telescope (GBT). Major partners so far include the Breakthrough Listen project (S&T: Nov. 2015, p. 10), the North American NanoHertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves, and West Virginia University.

Under the new regime, day-to-day operations at the observatory will remain basically the same. What will change is which research projects get first dibs on observing time. Back when the NSF bankrolled the observatory, any researcher in the world could propose a project using GBT, and those with the best proposals got queued up for time on the scope. Now, the Green Bank Observatory has to prioritize its major partners. "And when you sell dedicated telescope time to individuals or specific projects, that data is theirs to do with what they would like," Holstine says.


Please note: Some tables or figures were omitted from this article.

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Title Annotation:OBSERVATORIES; Green Bank Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia
Author:Temming, Maria
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Geographic Code:1U5WV
Date:Feb 1, 2017
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