Out with the NRAO, In with the GBO
On October 1st, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank took on a new persona – the Green Bank Observatory. The name change of the 60 year old facility in northern Pocahontas County is a harbinger of things to come as the observatory seeks to rebrand itself as one of the premiere radio astronomy locations in the entire world.
I spoke with the Green Bank Observatory Site Director Dr. Karen O’Neil during the inaugural celebration of the GBO held on October 8th and asked her what the name change means to her.
“It’s an interesting question,” said Dr. O’Neil. “We’ve been here 60 years now, we were certainly the original site of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. But what’s happening now is that we’re recognizing the fact that we are a very changing facility. We’re going to continue of course, all of our great educational programs, but at the same time we’re opening ourselves to a variety of new ways of doing business and this is really recognizing that change and that ability of us to go out and look for new types of business and new ways of doing business.”
A recent online article about the name change hinted that the observatory may be “going rogue” but Dr. O’Neil doesn’t agree with that label.
“Are we really going rogue, not really,” she said. “Of course, we’re all staying within the National Science Foundation, but there is a new level of flexibility that doesn’t exist when you’re working 100 percent for one organization as opposed to starting to go out, get creative and look for new ideas.”
The staff of the GBO got to have a little fun during the week leading up to the inauguration.
“On Monday, we had shirt day, the idea was to wear your oldest T-shirt,” she said. “I think the oldest going back to the late 1970’s. Then on Tuesday we started looking backwards and forwards, old hats and then creative new hats. The oldest hats belonging to the security guards and the old fire department back when the fire dept was actually part of this facility and not a separate facility outside of here.”
“On Wednesday, we got to celebrate potatoes. Why potatoes because of course we’ve got these fantastic potato patches here on site that are part of the West Virginia Department of Agriculture project. And then by Thursday, completely looking forward, everybody decorated themselves, their work spaces all up in the colors of the new Green Bank Observatory [green and purple] leading up to a big staff part on Friday.”
“Staff are certainly what makes this job great, it’s what makes this place great, and so being able to celebrate with the staff has been great.”
In 2012, the National Science Foundation, the primary funding source for the NRAO, received a recommendation that they divest themselves of the Green Bank Telescope, which would have severely affected funding for the site. The scramble was on to find other sources of funding. Today, the GBO still receives funding from the NSF, but also through partnerships with WVU, the Breakthrough Listen Initiative, and other projects like Nanograv.
“We’re part of Breakthrough Listen which is one of the numerous Breakthrough Initiatives going on,” she said, “and the current contract for that continues through 2020. We also have a partnership with a group called NANOGRAV, North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Wave Astronomy, and NANOGRAV is actually paying for a small part of our operations at about the half a million dollar level in order to buy time on the [Green Bank] telescope and that partnership also is currently continuing at least through 2020 if not a lot longer.”
The relationship with other NRAO sites in Charlottesville, Virginia, Socorro, New Mexico, and other telescope sites across the county will continue under Associated Universities Incorporated, the parent organization that oversees all the sites.
“We’re all still employees of the same parent organization just with different focuses within that organization,” said Dr. O’Neil. “It affects our relationship a little bit, but in practice we’re all still working together and that’s a very important partnership for us and for them and it’s something that we look forward to continuing.”
Dr. O’Neil says she’s excited to see what the future holds for the Green Bank Observatory and the discoveries yet to be made by its smart and creative staff.