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A compilation of stories, telescopes, internship resources, and other things radio astronomy.

Who is Green Bank Observatory? (A space love story)

Scoping out Radio Astronomy

A blog dedicated to telling the history of radio astronomy: its evolution, its discoveries, and its telescopes

Who is Green Bank Observatory? (A space love story)

Olivia Wilkins

Over the past several years, there has been speculation about what would happen to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) site in Green Bank, West Virginia, after the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced it would drop funding for the observatory. There were cries of "Save the GBT" in forms of petitions, and some sat in shock questioning how the NSF could consider defunding the awe-inspiring GBT.

Thus far, I've been trying to keep Scoping Out Radio Astronomy posts free from personal opinion with the intent of strictly providing information about radio astronomy. However, Green Bank hits too close to home to make talking about Green Bank Observatory totally impersonal. Even when I wrote a post a few months ago about the GBT, I struggled but refrained from pouring out my love for this telescope. I refrained from sharing the somewhat embarrassing fact that I can't help but grin when talking about it or that my eyes tear up a bit whenever I drive down WV-28 and see the GBT rising above the trees. Green Bank hits close to home because, for three months, it was my physical home. After that, my heart ached to go back for a couple of years. I don't know whether I just have a slightly unhealthy obsession with radio telescopes or if I listened hence internalized John Denver's Country Roads one too many times, but I love Green Bank. And, as the Planetary Society pointed out on their Twitter feed recently, Carl Sagan said that, "When you're in love, you want to tell the world."

So, here's my space love story.

Fortunately for me, my space love story hasn't come to heartbreak. Despite no longer being funded as the NRAO Green Bank site, the Pocahontas County radio astronomy community lives on at the newly inaugurated Green Bank Observatory (GBO).

Sure, a lot of things have changed in Green Bank. There is an independent GBO logo to replace the NRAO ones. The sources of funding are different. Green Bank is no longer an institution directly tied to NRAO in Charlottesville, VA, and Socorro, NM.

There are also a lot of things that remain the same, however. The GBT still gives me chills. The people are still friendly and excited about radio astronomy, which I was ecstatic to see first hand when I went out of my way on my road trip to grad school to visit. People from all over are still in awe of the telescopes and research in Green Bank. Inspiration lives in Green Bank.

New Green Bank Observatory logo with (from left to right) Karen O'Neil, GBO director; Mike Holstine, GBO Business Manager; J. T. Jurkowski, Legislative Assistant for Senator Capito (R-WV); Geoff Hempelmann, Legislative Assistant for Congressman Jenkins (R-WV); Dave McLaughlin, Pocahontas County Commissioner; Peggy Hawse, Regional Coordinator for Senator Manchin (D-WV); Ethan Schrier, President and CEP of Associated Universities, Inc. mage owned by Green Bank Observatory.

My space love story is the same story that I've put at the beginning of every personal statement for the past several years. It is the story that makes me swell with pride over a 17 million pound explorer of the invisible universe. It is the story that tells who I am as a scientist.

So, here's the story.

I was six years old the first time my family traveled through the Blue Ridge Mountains in West Virginia. Rising above the tall trees that filled the landscape were massive satellite dishes. Even at six, I knew there was something peculiar about these white giants. I remember crudely outlining two or three of the large dishes in my sketchpad, imprinting the awe-inspiring image in my mind. Twelve years later, my family returned to the area to investigate the complex that had caught my gaze so many years before. The “satellite dishes,” as I had called them, were actually radio telescopes—large metal contraptions that explored the invisible universe from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO, now independently Green Bank Observatory) in Green Bank, West Virginia. During my visit, I learned how the telescopes served as receivers to collect radio emissions from distant stars and gas clouds, allowing radio astronomers to study the physical makeup of the vast spaces beyond our solar system. The most remarkable thing I learned about the NRAO, however, was that they employ scientists from a range of backgrounds, from engineers who work on the instruments to physicists and chemists who assess an astronomical object’s state or chemical signature. After struggling with what type of scientist I wanted to be when I grew up, radio astronomy inspired me to incorporate diverse scientific interests into an interdisciplinary education.

In the summer of 2013, I returned to Green Bank a third time, but this time to work my dream job—tuning into the galaxy’s radio signals to learn about its chemistry. It was in Green Bank that I first learned of the field of astrochemistry. It was in Green Bank that I was inspired to travel internationally to visit other telescopes. It was in Green Bank that I learned to truly appreciate international perspectives over lunch seminars. After Green Bank whether it was during summer research at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in Germany as a Fulbrighter in the Cologne Laboratory Astrophysics Group, or now as I near the end of my first term as a graduate student at Caltech, everything is rooted in Green Bank.

The perfect view, from Hannah House, where Green Bank summer students live during their research assistantships. (July 2013)

And now, Green Bank lives on, under a new name, under a new logo. But, as Director Karen O'Neil points out, "the Pocahontas County research center remains alive and well, and as of [October 8, GBO's inauguration day], proudly independent."

While Green Bank remains peaceful for the moment, the NSF is in its review process to create an Environmental Impact Statement for changes in operations at Green Bank. As part of this process, the NSF is soliciting letters from the public to cite the value of Green Bank and specifically the GBT. If you think that the GBT is valuable for science research, you can submit your comments to envcomp-AST-greenbank@nsf.gov, CCing eis@gbobservatory.org, with the subject Green Bank Observatory. Letters should be received by November 25, 2016.

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