HUNTINGTON - In recent years, just outside the Monongahela National Forest in the heart of the National Radio Quiet Zone, considerable noise has been made by West Virginia residents and officials regarding controversies surrounding the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, Pocahontas County. Multiple public hearings, online comment periods and formations of grassroots community groups focused on whether the observatory would continue to get government financial support.
Those who have fought for the observatory found out Tuesday morning that their efforts were successful. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., announced the Green Bank Observatory would remain open for the foreseeable future as a result of provisions included in the National Science Foundation's 2018 spending bill.
"For 60 years, the foundation, Pocahontas County and the state of West Virginia have supported the ability of innumerable national and international scientists to make discoveries about our universe using the capabilities located at the observatory within the National Quiet Zone," Manchin said. "Over this time, the local communities have made sacrifices to keep the surrounding area radio-silent to ensure that the activities at the observatory can continue without interference."
Manchin said he believes the observatory's contributions in national and international science in coming years will fully justify the funding and support it receives from the NSF.
Manchin's announcement followed a similar announcement Tuesday by the NSF and Associated Universities Inc., which has operated the observatory since 2016.
The NSF's recently released Record of Decision states, "After careful consideration of a variety of important factors (...) NSF now issues this Record of Decision (ROD) selecting Alternative A: Collaboration with interested parties for continued science- and education-focused operations with reduced NSF funding (Agency-Preferred Alternative) for implementation ... "
"The scientific value of the Green Bank Observatory remains high, as demonstrated by the capabilities of and demand for its premier instrument, the Green Bank Telescope," Green Bank Observatory Director Karen O'Neil said. "Hundreds of scientists use the Green Bank Telescope each year for research that spans virtually every field of modern astrophysics ... Our focus looking forward is to ensure the Green Bank Telescope remains a competitive observatory well into the future, producing high-quality science while maximizing access by the U.S. astronomy community."
Home to the world's largest steerable radio telescope, the Green Bank Observatory became the target of the NSF's Division of Astronomical Sciences' decision to divest from certain projects in their portfolio in 2012. In 2017, the NSF's draft Environmental Impact Statement further outlined its plans to cut funding for activities at the Green Bank from $13 million to $2 million annually.
In 2016, when the NSF invested about $8 million into the Green Bank facilities, it was estimated the observatory contributed roughly $30 million into the state's economy each year. In 2017, the Green Bank facilities employed about 100 full-time employees and attracted about 50,000 visitors annually.
The provisions Manchin, as a member of the NSF's Appropriations Committee, helped to include in NSF's 2018 spending bill prevent the foundation from divesting from certain facilities and instead encourage working with federal, academic and private sector partners to continue operations. Manchin also helped to include language in the bill encouraging use of the Green Bank Telescope to support NASA's orbital debris monitoring activities.
Tuesday's NSF announcement states the observatory will continue its relationships with Breakthrough Listen, the North American NanoHertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav) and the West Virginia University Center for Astrophysics as well.
In 2018, the NSF awarded $1.3 million worth of funds to the Green Bank Observatory for implementation of a laser ranging measurement system for measuring surface distortions. The system will allow scientists to use the Green Bank Telescope approximately 1,000 additional hours each year, as the telescope will now be capable of precision focus during day and night.
In addition to the massive, 17-million-pound Green Bank Telescope, the observatory features other astronomy and astrophysics instrumentation, laboratory and office buildings, visitor and education facilities and lodging facilities for visiting scientists.
The observatory offers public tours throughout the year at a cost of $6 for adults and children above the age of 11, while children, active duty military and veterans are allowed in for free. Other facilities include an Exhibit Hall and Science Center. Visitors may not use cellphones or other wireless electronics while in the National Radio Quiet Zone.