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Experiments at Green Bank Could be in Jeopardy

By WHITNEY BURDETTE ∙ wburdette@statejournal.com

When most people think of West Virginia, they don't necessarily think of astronomy, astrobiology or astrochemistry.

But scientists at the Green Bank Observatory in Pocahontas County have been working for decades to study outer space. The research facility funded by the National Science Foundation is home to the Robert C. Byrd Telescope, the largest steerable object on land. 

"That telescope is used by astronomers and physicists not just in West Virginia and the United States, but around the world," said Karen O'Neil, site director at Green Bank. "We get about 600 different scientists coming in to use the instrument every year."

Those scientists use Green Bank facilities and instruments to study astrobiology and astrochemistry — among other things — to get a better understanding of how life started and how the planets, stars and galaxies were formed. 

But use of the telescopes isn't limited to just scientists.

"The other thing we do here is we have a big education program in the facility," O'Neil said. "We run all of the (National Radio Astronomy Observatory's) education centers based out of here. Programs range from secondary school kids, fifth grade through seniors in high school."

O'Neil said students who visit the observatory as part of a school trip can spend the night while using telescopes available for experiments. Material is available for teachers. College students also come to the observatory to conduct research or to help design new instruments. 

The public can also get in on the action.

"Of course we have our science center, which just opened to the general public, and that brings in 5,000 people a year," O'Neil said. 

Although the public is just getting its first taste of the facility, it actually has been operational since the 1950s. The first telescope was complete in 1959, and many instruments used in the 1950s and 1960s are still in use. 

The Robert C. Byrd Telescope is the center's newest instrument. It was completed in 2000, but it was designed to be upgraded over a 10-year period. Those upgrades were complete in 2010.

"It's only been in the past three years that it's been fully operational," O'Neil said.

Despite the work that goes on at the Green Bank observatory, funding is in danger. O'Neil said the Portfolio Review Committee last year recommended the National Science Foundation divest from the observatory. Although O'Neil said she thinks National Science Foundation officials don't want to defund the facility, they feel an obligation to comply with the recommendation. But that could have dire consequences for Green Bank, Pocahontas County and West Virginia.

"We … do not have any additional funding in place yet," O'Neil said. "We have just a few more months to come up with a plan.

"It would be a major impact," she added. "Within the county itself, we are one of the largest employers and also one of the largest tourist attractions. The economic impact on the county would be huge. Statewide, scientifically, if we were to lose the Green Bank telescope, we would lose many of the programs here."

O'Neil said the website www.aui.edu contains information about divestiture and information on how people can try to save the facility.