In an effort to work with the newly christened Green Bank Observatory on future endea- vors, US Senator Joe Manchin visited the facility last week to meet with director Karen O’Neil and business manager Mike Holstine.
The facility has been going through more changes than just its name. In 2012, the National Science Foundation chose to divest in the facility, reducing its funding.
“Our funding, we’re about sixty percent from the National Science Foundation,” O’Neil said. “It was ninety-five, ninety-eight percent. Now it’s sixty. The NSF has indicated that they want to move it down to about thirty percent over the next two years. That leaves us with a pretty big gap to fill.”
O’Neil explained to Manchin that the GBO is looking into new partnerships and other places for funding to keep the observatory up and running.
“We’ve got a couple potential concepts going with some of the groups that look at satellites and satellite placement, things like that,” O’Neil said. “They’re very interested in the GBT and the idea of the GBT actually transmitting, so becoming not just a passive system, but a transmitting system to help them track satellites. Plenty of groups are interested in that.”
The GBT becoming a transmitting telescope will also add to expenses, as it will cost money to add the new operational mode to the system.
Manchin suggested looking into partnering with entrepreneurs who are inter- ested in the astronomy field or science field.
“You have a group of entrepreneurs right now unlike we’ve ever seen in the country,” he said. “The Federal government basically walk-ed away from Kennedy Space Center. Who would have thought that we would have private individuals, private investors, private entrepreneurs in this country that would take over our space program? Never thought that. It wasn’t even imaginable.”
Manchin said with people like Elon Musk, a business magnate and founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, and Bill Gates are the kinds of people who would be interested in a place like GBO.
Manchin also suggested meeting with NASA to discuss a future partnership.
“My good friend, Bill Nelson, is a US Senator from Florida,” Manchin said. “His friend [Charles Bolden], is now the head of NASA at Cape Canaveral, so that would be where I would start, see if they can point us in the direction of how we start teaming up and what we have to offer here. I don’t know if they know of this opportunity or this availability. Maybe they contract with a place such as this around the world that has the same capability.”
“There’s nobody that has this capability,” O’Neil said.
“Now, that’s it,” Manchin said, laughing.
“That’s the reality of it,” O’Neil said. “The way NASA works is they’ve got a lot of smaller telescopes that they use in kind of a group, but the GBT has the advantage of both – being able to listen more distantly. When it comes to things like space travel, your sensitivity – so how big we are – actually equals what we call bandwidth, so how much information can they send very rapidly. It’s a much better view.”
Manchin said he is willing to add his voice to the cause and make contact with individuals and organizations that might be interested in partnering with the GBO.
“So basically, I need a breakdown of the capabilities you have in the scientific realm of what you are able to do,” he said. “What could even be expanded upon – what you’ve got right now and what type of value do we have here. What type of investments are made here over the years. If we could kind of put a snapshot of what’s been done so far and where we think we are as far as in needed upgrades and repairs. Be realistic about it.”
Manchin asked about the current partnerships GBO has, including those with foreign countries.
O’Neil said currently, there are no foreign countries using the GBT, but Russia is using another telescope at the facility. The GBO is also partnered with West Virginia University, but that program has also had to tighten its financial belt, leading to less funding for the observatory.
“It’s very small and it’s shrinking rapidly,” O’Neil said. “WVU’s commitment to us – we certainly appreciate the partnership – I think they did a wonderful thing stepping up. They have just cut their commitment to us down by a third because of their own budget cuts. It’s down to $350,000 a year.
“All they’re doing is buying time on the telescope [GBT] for their students,” O’Neil continued. “They certainly use what they have. We’re always trying to remind them that ‘you only bought this many hours.’”
While a lot of organizations use the GBT for research, there are only a few that actually buy time.
“The major institutions are West Virginia University, NANOGrav – it’s a spread of astronomers around the country that are purchasing time – and then Breakthrough Initiatives,” O’Neil said. “Those are our three primary groups. There’s lot of other smaller groups that buy a few hours here or there, but those are our three primary organizations.”
Manchin thanked O’Neil and Holstine for the information and said he would begin reaching out and making contact with potential investors for the GBO.
During his visit in Pocahontas County, Manchin stopped at Henry’s Quick Stop in Green Bank to have a Coffee and Common Sense session with local residents.