GBO Director Dr. Jim Jackson Talks About the Future of the Observatory

Since the early 1960’s the National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences have released the Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadel Survey roughly every 10 years.  Following the 2010 survey, one of the recommendations was for the National Science Foundation to divest the NRAO site at Green Bank from its portfolio.  That decision lead to the pursuit of other funding options and the rebranding of the site to the Green Bank Observatory. The importance of the GBO and the Green Bank Telescope is considerably different in the 2020 survey, according to Dr. Jim Jackson, the new Director of the GBO.

“The good news is that just a couple of days ago, the Decadel report came out,” he said. “So the astronomers get together every 10 years [and] they issue a report about what they want to do in the next decade and Green Bank faired really well on that.  The quote from the report was that it’s an essential element in the nation’s astrophysics toolkit. I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it.”

He says the validation of the scientific community is both welcome and reassuring because he’s already thinking about long range plans and opportunities for the GBT.  He says the size and the steer-ability of the GBT give it an advantage over larger stationary radio telescopes.

“There’s a bigger telescope out there; Arecibo used to be the biggest, then the Chinese built one that was roughly the same size as Arecibo.”

The Arecibo telescope, built in 1963, collapsed in late 2020 when cables holding the receiver snapped causing it to fall into the dish, leaving the telescope damaged beyond repair.  The Five Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (or FAST), like Arecibo is built into a natural depression in the earth in China.

“But they can only look straight up and wait for things to drift overhead.  They can’t steer all over the sky like we can.”

Due to the GBT’s vast surface area, they are able to collect a lot of signals and therefore “see” much fainter objects in the universe.  In order to take advantage of that, Dr. Jackson wants to turn the GBT into a type of digital camera.

“Rather than looking at one spot in the sky, we look at dozens of spots at the same time.  So instead of looking through a pin hole at one spot and then trying to make a map by moving the telescope, we can do a picture like a digital camera. Those radio cameras are the future of this telescope I think.  Instead of one receiver looking at one spot, we have dozens looking a whole wide area.  Then we can make our maps so much faster and see much, much fainter things.”

Another area to explore is a modern twist on an old technology – radar.  Dr. Jackson says the GBT can fill a hole left by the collapse of the Arecibo telescope.

“So Arecibo used to be a very big player in the radar world. That’s a niche that’s no longer being filled by Arecibo and we are an obvious successor to that sort of plan.  And one of the things that you can do with radar that’s really interesting is you can broadcast a radio signal from the Green Bank Telescope, it’ll bounce off whatever you want it to in space, mostly asteroids or the moon or planets, and then you can use sensitive radio telescopes either here at Green Bank or all over the world to receive those signals, and the more telescopes the better.”

He says they could use the radar technology to make some very detailed images of whatever phenomena they want to study.  He jokingly notes that there are no plans to turn the GBO into a black ops site, but says there are some very practical applications for this type of radar.

“Suppose there’s an asteroid bearing down on earth and might hit it someday…don’t we want to know what that looks like? What it is, how big it is, what’s the surface, is it a loose pile of rubble or is it a big solid piece of rock? That’s the sort of thing that radar can do for you.”

Do you have questions for Dr. Jackson? You’ll have an opportunity to talk to him on Friday, November 19th at 11am during a Zoom meeting with the community (find the zoom link below).  It will also be a Facebook Live event.

You can watch the presentation here on Facebook.

You can watch or listen to this presentation on Zoom here:

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Story By

Heather Niday

Heather is our Program Director and Traffic Manager. She started with Allegheny Mountain Radio as a volunteer deejay. She then joined the AMR staff in February of 2007. Heather grew up in the Richmond, Virginia, area and now lives in Arbovale, West Virginia with her husband Chuck. Heather is a wonderful flute player, and choir director for Arbovale UMC. You can hear Heather along with Chuck on Tuesday nights from 6 to 8pm as they host two hours of jazz on Something Different.

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