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Green Bank observatory hit with 'double whammy' by federal shutdown

GREEN BANK, W.Va. -- The National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank was scheduled to suspend operations starting at 7 p.m. Friday, because of a lapse in funding caused by the federal government partial shutdown.

The suspension puts more than 120 employees at the Pocahontas County observatory on indefinite unpaid furlough and brings all ongoing research projects to a halt.

"It's a morale blow for the employees here, since it will have a big impact on their finances, and because it means they can't work on projects they're proud to be involved with," said Karen O'Neil, director of the observatory. "It's kind of a double whammy."

The NRAO also is shutting down its Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array, Very Large Baseline Array and the Pete V. Dominici Science Operations Center in New Mexico, as well as the NRAO headquarters operation and Central Development Laboratory in Virginia.

"It's extremely unfortunate," said O'Neil. "We had all sorts of fantastic projects underway that are now suspended." The long-term effect on research being conducted at Green Bank will depend upon how long the shutdown lasts, she said.

Among research projects affected by the partial shutdown is NANOGrav, a collaborative effort attempting to detect and measure gravitational waves -- ripples in space and time -- by observing their effect on radio-wave signals traveling from pulsars. Astronomers, astrophysicists and physicists from a dozen universities in the United States and Canada are involved in the research, which could provide scientists with an entirely new spectrum with which to observe the universe.

NANOGrav researchers are observing 35 pulsars, using the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope, and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Among scientists involved in the project are West Virginia University astronomers Duncan Lorimer and Maura McLaughlin.

Most of the staff members at the Green Bank Observatory are employees of Associated Universities Inc., a private research entity that operates with financial support from the federally funded National Science Foundation.

"We were very much hoping to avoid closure, but it became inevitable" as the federal shutdown continued, O'Neil said.

The Green Bank Observatory's visitor center and tours of the facility also will be closed until the government shutdown ends. However, a controlled deer hunt at the facility scheduled for Oct. 18-19 is expected to take place as planned, since it will be managed by West Virginia Division of Natural Resources personnel.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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