MORGANTOWN (AP) — The director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank says a recommendation to de-fund the operation within five years would be a serious blow to the world’s astronomers.
A committee that is assessing research facilities in the National Science Foundation’s astronomy division submitted recommendations this week to NSF leadership. It lists the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope and the Very Long Baseline Array among several facilities the division should dump from its portfolio if research funding remains flat in future federal budgets.
It also calls for de-funding telescopes at the Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Ariz.
Jim Ulvestad, director of the Division of Astronomical Science, said no decisions have been made yet, and his division will respond to the recommendations as diligently and quickly as possible as budget requests for next year are prepared.
But Green Bank observatory director Karen O’Neil said NSF leadership isn’t soliciting feedback, either.
She’s hoping to rally community and congressional support to save an observatory that employs about 140 people. It’s the fourth-largest employer in Greenbrier County.
The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is headquartered in Charlottesville, Va., where its Central Development Laboratory develops and builds key components for the Very Long Baseline Array. Its employees work for Associated Universities Inc., the organization that runs the observatory under a cooperative agreement with NSF.
The suggested cuts stem from the 2010 Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey Report, “New Worlds, New Horizons,” which outlined key science needs for the future.
But O’Neil said that report was based on the assumption that the budget that would double over 10 years and didn’t focus on the value of existing facilities.
Last year, the astronomy division convened a 17-member committee to review the 2010 report and all AST-funded research facilities, adding in the assumption that budgets would remain flat.
“As soon as you stick that mandate on top,” O’Neil said, “you have to close facilities.”
Ulvestad said the astronomy community had the opportunity to comment during the review process, and the input was considered.
“Now that the report has been delivered, AST will make plans for responding to the report recommendations and will report to the community periodically on its actions,” he said, adding that while divestiture is recommended, “divestiture does not necessarily mean closure.”
A university or group of universities, for example, could take over operation, he said. Because they would serve a narrow group of users, they might also be able to operate them less expensively than the federal government. Or the observatories could partner with another federal agency or an international organization.
Green Bank has opportunities, he said, “and I would expect the NRAO to be pursuing those fairly aggressively.”
In its executive summary, the committee said that while “every field of research has ambitions beyond its current means,” the astronomy division’s funding choices are “particularly difficult” under shrinking budget projections.
“Our goal is to assemble a vital, forward-looking and balanced portfolio that enables scientists to respond quickly and effectively to the most promising new discoveries and technologies of the coming decade,” the committee said.
Every funding scenario contemplated “requires aggressive action on divesting the less-critical facilities,” it concluded. “A status-quo approach to AST facilities would be disastrous for U.S. astronomy.”
O’Neil, however, argues the cost of operating the Green Bank Telescope is a cost-effective way to keep science moving forward, operating at less than 1 percent of the annual federal budget for astronomy and astrophysics.
“But the cost of replacing it, once it’s gone, would be enormous,” she said, describing it as a cutting-edge instrument that provides unmatched views into the universe.
The 16 million-ton, $95 million Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest, fully steerable single-dish radio telescope and has been in full operation for less than a decade.
Astronomers and students worldwide use it to search for the molecular building blocks of life in space, for studying matter at extreme densities, for mapping clouds of intergalactic gas invisible to other scopes and more.
The Very Long Baseline Array, meanwhile, is a network of 10 radio dish antennas stretching 5,351 miles from Hawaii to the U.S. Virgin Islands. The VLBA had a new data processing supercomputer installed in 2010, and it’s the world’s largest, highest-resolution dedicated telescope.
It helps astronomers to measure the distances to and rotation rates of galaxies, to create the most accurate map our own, and to trace the movements of black holes and pulsars to learn their history and future, among other things.
“Divestment from these highly successful, long-running facilities will be difficult for all of us in the astronomical community,” the review committee said.
However, it must be balanced against the possibility of “devastating cuts to individual research grants, mid-scale projects and new initiatives,” it concludes.
“Retaining the above facilities in the face of declining budgets risks significantly greater shortfalls, which would be a far more severe loss to the forward momentum of the field.”