NRAO leadership upbeat about recentﾠ review
The director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank says he is excited about the results of a recent review of operations at the nationﾒs observatories.
Released on November 3, The National Science Foundationﾒs Astronomy Senior Review Committee report made major recommendations for restructuring the foundationﾒsﾠ ground-based astronomy efforts, including significant changes for the NRAO.
While the report raised the prospect of closing NRAO facilities in Puerto Ricoﾠ and New Mexico by 2011, the committee described the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope asﾠ ﾓhighly promising.ﾔ
ﾓIt is expected that it will be operated as part of the base program beyond the horizon of this report,ﾔ the committee wrote of the GBT.
Dr. Richard Prestage, Site Director for NRAO in Green Bank, said the future for the telescope looks bright.
ﾓThe GBT has so much potential,ﾔ Prestage said. ﾓ[It] is without question the most capable and advanced single-dish centimeter-wave radio telescope in the world. It is doing outstanding science.ﾔ
Completed in 2000, the 100-meter GBT is the worldﾒs largest fully steerable radio telescope.
Scientists and scholars from around the world have used the telescope to study everything from planets and comets in our own solar system to pulsars and galaxies billions of light years away.
Prestage said work is currently being done to expand the telescopeﾒs capabilities, with the goal of studying at radio wavelengths as small as three millimeters.
Currently the telescope can detect wavelengths from six millimeters to one meter.
Despite praise for the GBT and its capabilities in its report, the Senior Review Committee called the $10 million operating budget at Green Bank ﾓconspicuously large,ﾔ when compared to the cost of building the GBT.
ﾓReductions in the cost of Green Bank Telescope operations, administrative support and scientific staff at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory should be sought,ﾔ the report stated.
However, Prestage said the $10 million figure includes much more than operation of the GBT and includes some services and personnel that are shared by all NRAO facilities, such as payroll staff.
ﾓWeﾒre going through the process right now of splitting those costs out,ﾔ said Prestage. ﾓWe believe we can make a strong case that Green Bank operations are extremely cost-effective.ﾔ
An in-depth review of finances at Green Bank and the other NRAO facilities is expected to take place over the next six-to-eight months, according to the NSF.
ﾓWe look forward to an independent cost analysis by specialists in telescope operations and business administration,ﾔ said NRAO Director Fred Lo, in a recent press release. ﾓIn the meantime, we will redouble efforts to explore alternative modes of operation while continuing to enhance scientific capabilities.ﾔ
While the observatory offered a small, voluntary early- retirement program last year, Prestage said it was not connected with the Senior Review.ﾠﾠﾠ
That program was the result of flat funding to the NSF from Congress until 2005, resulting in increasingly lean budgets for the observatory, Prestage explained. After President George W. Bush unveiled his American Competitiveness Initiative as part of this yearﾒs State of the Union Address, the NRAO began to receive funding that kept pace with inflation, said Prestage.
ﾓWe are not planning any workforce reductions in Green Bank,ﾔ Prestage added. ﾓIf any changes do occur as a result of the report, they will be as a gradual transition between 2009 and 2011.ﾔ
One thing the report says not to change is the observatoryﾒs visitor center. The Science Center at Green Bank and its counterparts in Puerto Rico and New Mexico were singled out as ﾓmajor attractionsﾔ that present modern astronomy in exciting ways.
Green Bankﾒs Science Center received 44,717 visitors in 2005.
ﾓI think the publicﾗpeople in generalﾗare just fascinated by astronomy,ﾔ said Prestage. ﾓIt is one of the most accessible sciences. Anyone can look up at the sky and start to wonder about the beginning of the universe.ﾔ
Prestage said the observatoryﾒs science center is unique in that education and outreach staff regularly interact with NRAO scientists when bringing concepts and new discoveries to the public.
Prestage said he hopes there will be many more discoveries made with the GBT to share with the world.
Just last week, the observatory released an image of Saturn made with a new receiver that may open soon open up the GBT to use at higher frequencies.
ﾓIt has taken us five years to get to this stage,ﾔ said Prestage. ﾓGive us another five years, and we should really be opening up into some exciting fields.ﾔ
With this week marking the observatoryﾒs 50th anniversary, Prestage said he was looking forward to many more to come.
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