W.Va. Family Fights to Save Green Bank Observatory

Mar 14, 2017

A powerful space-exploration facility in operation since the 1950s is under threat. Residents of the tiny West Virginia community in which it resides and its extended family of scientists and educators are rallying to save it.

 

Nestled in the hills in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, is the Green Bank Telescope. At 485 feet tall and about 300 feet across, it’s the largest fully-steerable telescope in the world, and it belongs to Green Bank Observatory.

A model radio telescope outside the Green Bank Observatory in Pocahontas County, W.Va.
Credit Jesse Wright / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Since the observatory opened in 1957, researchers have used the facility to make several discoveries, like organic prebiotic molecules -- the building blocks of life. The Green Bank Telescope is also one of only two radio telescopes in the world searching for signs of intelligent life in space. But today, the telescope and the facility that supports it are under federal review -- with the possibility of losing funding or being dismantled.

In the face of that threat, one West Virginia family hopes to convince the powers that be of the facility’s value to science, education and the small town in which the telescope resides.

"It's almost like a tiny metropolitan city in the middle of rural West Virginia,” said Ellie White, a 16-year-old from Barboursville, West Virginia. “That kind of resource is invaluable for kids across the state and across the country, who are going to be tomorrow's innovators, engineers, scientists, politicians, artists.”

Josh (from left), Deana and Ellie White at a Green Bank Observatory conference room.
Credit Jesse Wright / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

White’s family volunteered to start a campaign called “Go Green Bank Observatory” to rally support from across the country and show the National Science Foundation, which used to almost completely fund the observatory, that Green Bank Observatory is worth keeping. In 2012, the NSF published a portfolio review that recommended at least partially divesting from several observatories around the country that no longer have as large of a scientific impact as they used to. Green Bank Observatory was on that list.

Proposed operational changes for Green Bank Observatory range from continuing to partially fund its operations to shutting down its research operations and turning it into a technology park, or completely tearing it down.

“This is one of the difficult things the NSF has to do,” said Edward Ahjar, an astronomer at the NSF. “All of our facilities do great science, and that's why we fund them. But when we start having less and less money to spread around, then we have to prioritize them. Which are doing the most important science now? Which are lower ranked?”

Edward Ahjar (center) listens to the public's input during the second public scoping meeting held at Green Bank Observatory on Nov. 9, 2016.
Credit Roxy Todd / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The Fight to Keep Green Bank Observatory Open

Last fall, Go Green Bank Observatory encouraged fans to speak at two public scoping meetings where Ahjar and other representatives from the NSF would be present to hear the public’s input about the divestment process.

About 350 people filled the seats of an auditorium at the observatory. Several in attendance were affiliated with West Virginia University, which since 2006 has received more than $14.5 million in grant dollars for research related to the Green Bank Telescope.

“When I started applying for graduate school, WVU was one of my top choices,” said Kaustubh Rajwade, a graduate student from India in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at WVU. “The only reason I came here was so I could use the Green Bank Telescope.”

Others, like Buster Varner, a local fire chief, were more concerned about Green Bank Observatory’s role in the community as a de facto community center, where people can hold meetings and classes.

“Whenever we had a catastrophe, we can go to Mike,” Varner said, referring to Mike Holstine, the business manager at Green Bank Observatory. “I don’t know much about this science, and there’s a lot of people here who does and that’s great. But I do not want anything to happen to this facility, period.”

The Green Bank Observatory in Pocahontas County, W.Va.
Credit Jesse Wright / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The NSF once almost completely funded Green Bank Observatory’s operations. But Holstine said that especially in the past five years, the observatory saw a need to diversify its sources of funding -- in part because outside organizations and researchers expressed a willingness to pay for time on the telescope, but also due to the clear indicators that the observatory needed to rely less on the NSF.

Green Bank Observatory employs between 100 and 140 people -- more than half of whom are from Pocahontas County -- depending on the time of year. The money also helps the observatory maintain its own infrastructure in an isolated and rural area.

“You kind of need to think of us as a town, a self-contained town,” Holstine explained. “We have our own roads. We have our own water system. We have our own wastewater system. We take care of our own buildings. We mow our own grass; we cut our own trees. We have to plow snow in the winter.”

The Green Bank Telescope at Green Bank Observatory is the largest fully-steerable telescope in the world.
Credit Jesse Wright / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

A Future Without Green Bank Observatory

For White, the Observatory isn’t only worth keeping because of its accomplishments -- but also because of its efforts to train the next generation of scientists. When she was younger, White was convinced she wanted to be an artist when she grew up. But since playing among the telescopes as a child, she has gone on to work on projects under the mentorship of astronomers and graduate students from all over the world.

She’s not the only teen who’s been impacted by the observatory’s work; through the Pulsar Search Collaboratory, more than 2,000 high school students have worked with the Green Bank Observatory through a partnership with West Virginia University since 2007.

“Just generally being here, you learn something every day. It’s like learning a new language through immersion,” White said.

The NSF will reach its decision about the Green Bank Observatory’s fate by the end of this year or the beginning of next year.  At 16 years old, White hopes to get her doctorate in astrophysics and one day find full employment at the observatory. If it shuts down, White said, she might have to look for employment out of state.