New Tech, Bright Future, for the National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Observatory

image of the Green Bank Telescope in the Fall
The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope – the world’s premiere single-dish radio telescope – operates at roughly 6,500 hours a year, more than any other observatory. (GBO/AUI/NSF)

Green Bank, W.Va. — Innovation takes confidence, investment, and time. The Green Bank Observatory is striding purposefully into the future as Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI) signs a new 5-year cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to continue to manage Observatory operations.

“AUI has managed Green Bank since the beginning, submitting the first contract for construction of the Observatory to the NSF back in 1955,” says AUI President Dr. Adam Cohen. “This new award recognizes Green Bank Observatory’s value in pushing the leading edge on several areas of radio astronomy. AUI is very proud to continue managing this world- class observatory for the NSF and is excited to help enable the coming years of innovation at Green Bank.”

Green Bank Observatory operates the world’s largest, fully steerable telescope, the 100-meter diameter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT), as well as numerous other smaller instruments and a world-renowned education and public outreach center.

How do you make the world’s largest fully steerable telescope even better? The Observatory is rolling out new instruments and infrastructure upgrades to maximize the science coming from the 100-meter GBT.

“Demand by the research community to use the GBT continues to increase and the Observatory must develop new instruments and software to meet this demand and to ensure relevance of our resources well into the future. The new management award provides the foundation necessary for this development,” shares Green Bank Observatory Site Director, Dr. Karen O’Neil.

Improvements to the infrastructure of the GBT, its receivers, and processors, will allow astronomers to expand the types of information collected and make observations more rapidly. Anticipated new site telescopes will allow for detecting the location of mysterious objects known as Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs). Continued growth and new programs provided by the Science Center will ensure everyone visiting the site will have the opportunity to learn about the telescopes’ discoveries. This means we can learn more about lesser-known parts of our universe faster than ever before while also making sure those discoveries are shared with the world.

An eagerly anticipated tool is the Ultra Wide Band (UWB) receiver1, which will improve the sensitivity of the GBT, and be in demand for the study of pulsars and FRBs, objects that are changing our understanding of fundamental physics. “We’re eagerly anticipating the completion of the UWB receiver, as this instrument, used on the GBT, will greatly increase the sensitivity of our observations, significantly accelerating our detection of gravitational waves using pulsar timing,” says Dr. Scott Ransom, Chair of the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav), an NSF Physics Frontiers Center, and a current Green Bank Observatory partner.

New digital technologies and Artificial Intelligence are being developed to reduce Radio Frequency Interference (generated by a multitude of human activities) that slows down the receiving and processing of astronomical data. Prototypes are underway, converting analog to digital data at the GBT receiver, and using specific machine learning programs to remove this interference from observation data, significantly increasing data quality and processing speed. Current testing is at limited bandwidths, building in customizable parameters and internationally recognized standards to allow for use by other scientists and observatories. This cutting-edge project2 has opportunities for undergraduate students to participate in technology development during summer research programs.

Other new instruments include the Laser Antenna Surface Scanning Instrument (LASSI)3, which will use commercial lasers to calibrate the collecting surface of the GBT more efficiently, allowing it to be more responsive to making adjustments for high frequency observations, potentially increasing usable time by 1,000 hours.

The GBT is already one of the world’s most sensitive radio telescopes, and straightforward upgrades of existing receivers will lead to a 30 – 50% improvement in survey speed. The GBT is an ideal instrument for radio camera development, using Traditional Feed Horn Arrays and Phased Array Feeds, which would significantly expand the types of images that can be produced, data which can be collected, and speed.

girls soldering wires
Students at Green Bank Observatory perfect their soldering technique. (GBO/AUI/NSF)

This new era for GBO serves not only the scientific community — it will also provide more opportunities for workforce development. “We have to grow the pipeline for new Observatory staff to meet this growth,” reiterates Tracy Samples, of Human Resources, “Over the next five years, to meet hiring demand, we’ll have many new openings for internships and apprenticeships.”

The NSF agreement specifically call outs the excellence of Green Bank’s nationally recognized Education and Public Outreach programs. Inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers supports the NSF’s national education efforts, NSF-INCLUDES (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science), and Green Bank is the PI for the FIRST2 STEM Student Success Alliance.4 Approximately 5,000 youth and adults are impacted each year through Observatory- led educational programs, and nearly 25,000 students are reached through West Virginia Science Public Outreach Teaching programs (WV-SPOT).

“The GBT already enables transformative advances in astronomy,” said Harshal Gupta, the NSF program officer for Green Bank Observatory. “Using the telescope, astronomers from the NANOGrav team recently detected the most massive neutron star, a discovery with implications for understanding the limit at which such stars collapse to form black holes. Further improvements and upgrades to the GBT would greatly accelerate the pace of such discoveries.”

Green Bank Observatory is supported by the National Science Foundation and is operated by Associated Universities, Inc. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


Media Contacts:

Jill Malusky, Public Relations Specialist, Green Bank Observatory, 304-456-2236

Dr. Karen O’Neil, Green Bank Observatory Site Director, 304-456-2130

Public Affairs, National Science Foundation, 703-292-7090

[1] Funded by a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

[2] Funded by a grant from NSF ATI – AST-1910302

[3] Funded by a grant from NSF MSIP – AST-1836009

[4] Funded by a grant from NSF INCLUDES – HRD-1834601