The Green Bank Observatory has a funding commitment to keep it operating for another decade. That's good news for science in West Virginia, as well as the state itself.
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., announced Tuesday that the Green Bank Observatory would remain open for the foreseeable future as a result of provisions included in the NSF'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."
The Green Bank Observatory contains the world's largest steerable radio telescope. Along with the radio telescope that measures 100 meters (328 feet) across, the observatory includes astronomy and astrophysics instrumentation, office and laboratory buildings, a visitor and education facility and lodging facilities for visiting scientists.
The foundation had been evaluating options for the observatory. It provided 95 percent of its funding in 2012, but had reduced the amount in recent years. Associated Universities Inc. has operated the observatory since 2016.
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.
Partnerships with collaborators outside the NSF have helped underwrite GBO's operating costs for several years. Project Breakthrough Listen has made a 10-year, $100 million commitment to the observatory for 20 percent of the Green Bank Telescope observation time for 10 years in its search of 100 galaxies for signs of alien technology. Other partners include the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves and West Virginia University.
"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 after the funding announcement. "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."
It's hard to put into words what a world-class facility such as the Green Bank Observatory means to a state such as West Virginia, which to this day remains weighed down by offensive stereotypes. This round of secured funding means bright scientific minds will continue to come to the state and use its resources to further our knowledge of the universe.
It's the kind of thing that helps break the negative stereotypes, and that's good for West Virginia and West Virginians.