NSF may shut down West Virginia’s Green Bank Telescope and people aren’t happy

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Tight budgets have forced the National Science Foundation to consider shutting down and deconstructing the Green Bank Telescope, the largest steerable telescope in the world. This consideration has caused controversy among astronomers and members of the general public alike.

Located in Green Bank, West Virginia, the GBT was opened in 2001 and is a state-of-the-art radio telescope primarily used to study pulsars, identify asteroids, and – more recently – search for intelligent life in the universe.

Astronomers who use the telescope for research claim that it has unique capabilities not likely to be replaced by other telescopes any time soon. Members of the West Virginia community argue that the GBT is an irreplaceable research and education tool in a region that desperately needs more STEM resources.

NSF, which paid for the development of the GBT and owns the land it operates on, announced on October 19th that they will consider various alternatives regarding the future of the GBT, including the option to deconstruct the facility altogether.

Before making a decision, NSF has asked for opinions from the public and scientific community regarding this decision. Commentary should be sent to envcomp-AST-greenbank@nsf.gov, with subject line “Green Bank Observatory” by November 25th.

Why are Astronomers Upset?

NSF’s consideration to shut down the GBT was prompted by a report issued in 2012 which included a recommendation for NSF to gradually stop funding the GBT over the course of five years. The recommendation caused an uproar among radio astronomers. NSF ultimately continued to fund the telescope, albeit at much lower levels.

Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia / Image courtesy of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory

Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia / Image courtesy of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory

Now, four years later, NSF has announced their consideration to shut down the GBT completely, resurfacing those same frustrations from astronomers at universities and research organizations all over the world. These astronomers argue that because the GBT is both very large and fully steerable, it provides unique capabilities to researchers that aren’t available at other observatories, in operation or planned, today.

A recent white paper written by scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Stanford, Harvard, the European Southern Observatory, and the California Institute of Technology argued for continued federal support of the GBT due to these unique capabilities.

With its large 110-meter dish, GBT is able to “hear” incredibly faint radio waves emitted from the universe that smaller radio dishes wouldn’t be able to capture. Of course larger dish telescopes, like the a stationary 305-meter Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, can do this as well.

It’s GBT’s steerability that sets it apart. With its ability to move its large dish, GBT can cover 80 percent of the sky. Stationary single-dish radio telescopes must make do with the swath of the universe that passes directly overhead. The Arecibo Telescope can observe about 33 percent of the sky, for example.

Another white paper put forward by Green Bank Observatory researchers, argued that recent discoveries in the astronomy field have invalidated the 2012 negative assessment of GBT’s usefulness. In particular, the recent discovery of gravitational waves has put pulsar research, an area where GBT is well-known, at the forefront of modern astronomy.

Gravitational waves are created by large cataclysmic events that create ripples in the fabric of spacetime. Once scientists proved that they could detect them, it opened up an entirely new way to study the universe.

Dr. Sean McWilliams, an astronomer at West Virginia University who was one of the collaborators on the recent discovery of gravitational waves, told TechCrunch that the GBT is a crucial tool for his line of work. McWilliams uses the GBT and the Arecibo Telescope to analyze radio waves emitted from pulsars. By precisely recording the timing of these pulsars, astronomers can look for gravitational waves.

“We use the GBT and Arecibo for our timing, and to achieve our science, we need the steerability of the GBT because we really need a large number of extremely well timed pulsars in order to accomplish many of our observational goals.” Dr. Sean McWilliams, Astronomer at West Virginia University

McWilliams noted that larger telescopes like the 305-meter Arecibo Telescope or the 500-meter FAST telescope in China can perform somewhat more precise timing of the pulsars in their line of view. But they’re limited in the portion of the sky they can study.

“This is a tremendous advantage for the GBT, and given the engineering limitations involved, it is highly unlikely that another facility that is comparable in size to the GBT and also steerable will be constructed in the foreseeable future.” Dr. Sean McWilliams, Astronomer at West Virginia University

What Led NSF to this Decision?

The NSF report issued in 2012, recommending the divestment of the GBT argued that many of telescope’s capabilities were duplicated by the stationary Arecibo Telescope and that NSF funding could be better used elsewhere.

Astronomers who disagreed with this recommendation stated that the GBT is more capable than Arecibo because of its steerable nature. Stationary telescopes like Arecibo can’t collect the same types or amounts of data as the GBT because of the restricted portion of the sky they cover.

The Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico / Image courtesy of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center

The Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico / Image courtesy of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center

While NSF didn’t follow the report’s recommendation entirely, it did move from covering 95 percent of GBT’s operating costs in 2012 to only 66 percent of their operating cost in the 2017 fiscal year.

The GBT, which costs roughly $10 million to operate a year, has found other partners to keep the telescope up and running. Among the largest of those partners include the North American NanoHertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav), West Virginia University, and the Breakthrough Listen project.

It seems logical to believe that this method of private partnerships would be the smartest way to keep the GBT open. Meaning, if the GBT is so useful, why don’t researchers simply “pay to play” and remove the need for government funding altogether?

Well, the problem with the pay-to-play model is that, with federal funding, the GBT is able to offer thousands of hours of open-access time to researchers each year. This means that different scientists with different ideas, all over the world, can compete against each other to have access to a state-of-the-art instrument. If the GBT were forced to rely on private partnerships alone, those with the most money, rather than the best research ideas would control access to the telescope.

But of course, private partnerships may not be an option at all if NSF chooses to deconstruct the facility altogether.

Why are West Virginians Upset?

For many West Virginians, the GBT is a symbol for science and innovation and something that brings positive attention to a state often troubled with negative press. To them, deconstructing the GBT means taking away a monument that they relate closely to state pride.

West Virginians also argue that the removal of the GBT would cause irreparable damage to a state that is already struggling financially and a region that desperately needs STEM educational resources.

Green Bank Telescope in Pocahontas County, West Virginia / Image courtesy of West Virginia University

Green Bank Telescope in Pocahontas County, West Virginia / Image courtesy of West Virginia University

The West Virginia NASA Space Grant, an organization that represents twelve colleges and universities across WV sent NSF a letter in support of GBT funding noting, “The importance of this facility to science and the state of West Virginia cannot be overstated.”

Ryan Loomis, a PhD candidate in Astronomy at Harvard University who grew up in the Shenandoah Valley just across the state border from the GBT, told TechCrunch that losing the telescope would cause negative ripple effects throughout the surrounding community.

“Losing federal funding of the Green Bank Observatory would be a blow, not only to science, but also to everyone in that region – the local residents employed as painters, mechanics, and engineers, the undergraduate and graduate students at local universities who use data from the GBT, and the local kids (myself included) who were inspired by the GBT to pursue a STEM career.” Ryan Loomis, Astronomy PhD candidate at Harvard University

Like other states in Appalachia, West Virginia’s financial woes have ties to the coal industry. Due to automation of coal mining and more attractive energy alternatives, the coal industry is dying and taking West Virginia jobs and state tax revenue with it. Without other 21st century jobs to replace coal mining jobs, West Virginia has been left as one of the top five poorest states in the country with nearly one in five West Virginians living on food stamps.

Members of the West Virginia community argue that taking away the GBT would strike too big of a financial blow to the region. The GBT provides up to 140 local jobs and draws in 50,000 visitors each year. The observatory estimates that the telescope and surrounding facility bring in roughly $12 million in tourism dollars to the region annually.

But it may be the non-financial impact of the GBT that West Virginia educators are concerned about the most.

In the past year, West Virginia’s board of education moved to add climate change denial and creationism to students’ science textbooks throughout the state. With anti-science concepts seeping into mandated curriculum, many West Virginia teachers look to the GBT as a valuable educational science resource for themselves and their students.

According to Sue Ann Heatherly, Education Program Coordinator for the GBT, the Green Bank Observatory hosts on-site research training and workshops for dozens of West Virginia teachers. Additionally, over 2,500 K-12 students are hosted annually through site tours, summer research internships, and mentorship programs.

Beyond its benefit to K-12 educators and students, the GBT is a tool that graduate students and professors at West Virginia University rely on for their work. According to WVU Astronomy professor Dr. Maura McLaughlin, the GBT is used as the primary tool for the research of nine current PhD students at WVU. In 2015, these students and faculty members clocked in a total of 2,700 research hours on the GBT.

As a testament to its current value to the university, WVU has produced 56 GBT-related publications since 2006 and 19 of those were published in the last year alone.

With benefits to education, tourism, and research, this threat to the Green Bank Telescope’s future has caused a stir throughout West Virginia.

What Happens Next?

The National Science Foundation has five options: fully fund the GBT’s $10 million annual budget, partially fund the GBT, have the GBT rely solely on private partners, suspend telescope operations and mothball the facility, or deconstruct the telescope altogether.

Before the NSF makes their final decision, they are taking comments from the public. The GBT is the most capable telescope of its kind and losing it could lead to negative consequences in the community it resides as well as the field of astronomy. If you have an opinion on the matter you should send comments to envcomp-AST-greenbank@nsf.gov, with subject line “Green Bank Observatory” by November 25th.

Disclosure: The author was born in West Virginia, went to West Virginia University and now resides in San Francisco.