Green Bank Observatory Receives $5.3 million from National Science Foundation To Repair Foundation of One of World’s Largest Telescopes

The Green Bank Telescope weighs in at 17 million pounds, making it one of the largest movable manmade structures on Earth. Photo credit Jay Young.

The National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Telescope (GBT) is one of the world’s largest moving structures. Sixteen wheels carry 17 million pounds on a steel track atop a concrete foundation, allowing it to rotate to pinpoint planets, stars, asteroids, and other astronomical phenomena across the Universe. A new award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will ensure it continues operating smoothly. 

Since the GBT’s completion in 2000, the Green Bank Observatory (GBO) staff perform annual maintenance to ensure the structural integrity of the telescope, but many components are nearing the end of their planned lifetime, including the track’s top layer of “wear plates” and epoxy grout between the plates and foundation. 

Designing a system to bear this enormous weight has been challenging, with numerous redesigns and mitigation strategies over the years. The contact pressure between the wheels and track is over 100,000 pounds per square inch. With normal use over time, cracks form in the wear plates, and the grout begins to deteriorate.  

To revitalize the GBT and allow it to operate for the next twenty years, the track and grout must be replaced. Thanks to a new award from the NSF, this work will take place over the next four years. $5.3 million dollars will be used to purchase 48 new wear plates, and grout will be replaced in sections through 2026. In addition, two new techniques to mitigate cracking in the wear plates will be tested and, if successful, implemented.  

“This commitment from the National Science Foundation to the Green Bank Telescope is welcomed, needed, and worthwhile,” shares Senator Shelley Moore Capito. “I have long advocated for the capabilities and opportunities for discovery that exist at the Green Bank Observatory. I am thankful for the NSF’s assistance in stabilizing the Green Bank Telescope so that the pursuit of scientific discovery can continue in Pocahontas County.”

“West Virginia has a long history with groundbreaking space research, from Katherine Johnson to the Rocket Boys. The Green Bank Telescope is a critical tool for the national and global astronomical community, and I am pleased NSF is investing $5.3 million to upgrade its foundation and replace key equipment,” adds Senator Joe Manchin. “I look forward to seeing the positive impacts of this funding, and I will continue working with NSF to support scientific research opportunities across the Mountain State.”

Throughout its 22-year history, GBO has developed and deployed many new instruments for the GBT, and its capabilities continue to grow. In 2023, a new ultra-wideband receiver will become available to astronomers, greatly improving the precision timing of pulsars, relieving new secrets to the inner workings of the Universe. Plans are also underway for a new high-power radar transmitter which will enable high-resolution imaging of asteroids and other planetary bodies. A prototype captured the highest resolution image of the surface of the Moon ever taken from the Earth. 

The most recent decadal survey from the National Academies reaffirms the importance of the GBT, while also identifying a “pressing need to maintain and upgrade capabilities on U.S.-led telescopes.” 

“Our current funding is not enough for the GBT’s full revitalization. We must continue to address significant infrastructure and maintenance needs in order to ensure the telescope’s long-term future,” shares Dr. Jim Jackson, GBO Director. “This new $5.3 million award will help greatly, and we look forward to working with NSF to find support for our other infrastructure needs.”

The Green Bank Observatory is a major facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc. This award is an increment to the existing NSF cooperative agreement. 

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Media Contacts:Jill Malusky, GBO Public Information Officer, ude.o1665157255arn@y1665157255ksula1665157255mj1665157255 304-460-5608