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Astronomy Portfolio Review Recommends Defunding US's Biggest Telescope 192

Posted by Soulskill
from the would-rather-by-half-a-jet-plane dept.
derekmead writes "Data from the enormous Green Bank Telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory has been used to test some of Einstein's theories, discover new molecules in space, and find evidence of the building blocks of life and of the origins of galaxies. With 6,600 hours of observation time a year, the GBT produces massive amounts of data on the makeup of space, and any researchers with reason to use the data are welcome to do so. The eleven-year-old GBT stands as one of the crowning achievements of American big science. But with the National Science Foundation strapped for cash like most other science-minded government agencies, the NRAO's funding is threatened. In August of this year, the Astronomy Portfolio Review, a committee appointed by the NSF, recommended that the GBT be defunded over the next five years. Researchers, along with locals and West Virginia congressmen, are fighting the decision, which puts the nearly $100 million telescope at risk. Unless they succeed, America's giant dish will go silent."
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Astronomy Portfolio Review Recommends Defunding US's Biggest Telescope

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  • Silent? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gstoddart (321705) on Friday September 28, 2012 @11:45AM (#41489063) Homepage

    Unless they succeed, America's giant dish will go silent

    OK, I know I'm being a bit of a pedant ... but it's listening, it's already silent. ;-)

    That being said, this sucks ... the amount of actual science we do seem to keep falling. But we've got money to teach Creationism in schools.

    • Creationism is all we'll have left to teach after real science is defunded and the church gets all the money instead.

      • by Jeng (926980)

        That is an interesting thought. Teach the wrong things to children because it is cheaper than teaching facts.

        Shit, so that is why the Republicans are so for "teaching the controversy", it makes so much sense now.

        • ...so that is why the Republicans are so...

          I see no significant opposition from the democrats, so there's no point in trying to discuss only half the picture.

          • by Jeng (926980)

            If only one side is pushing then that side is at fault whether the other side resists or not.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by SlippyToad (240532)

            I see no significant opposition from the democrats, so there's no point in trying to discuss only half the picture.

            No because they've only been trying to keep the fuckwit retards of the Teabag Party from shutting down our entire country for the last two years.

            While I'm admittedly bothered by this, this is a direct result of caving to the "we're too BROOOOOKE" mythology of the retard right that can always find a hundred billion or two to start a fucking war, but has a full-blown hissyfit meltdown when someo

    • by xclr8r (658786)
      Silent as in not feeding researchers the data that they crave. If it can't listen it can't distribute data.
    • Re:Silent? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by StormReaver (59959) on Friday September 28, 2012 @12:22PM (#41489563)

      But we've got money to teach Creationism in schools

      Teaching Creationism doesn't require any money...or evidence....or logic...or intelligence....or anything else. It's dirt cheap to teach, as it relies only upon what someone wants to believe at any given moment in time.

      Real universal-level science, on the other hand, is very expensive. It requires the ability to make observations, the attention to detail and time necessary to evaluate and collate enormous amounts of data, the ability to accurately spot and eliminate flawed data, and a tremendous ability to arrive at logical conclusions based on said valid data. And it requires a LOT of money to build and maintain facilities needed to acquire such data.

      To summarize:

      Teaching Fantasy: Dirt Cheap.
      Expanding Human Knowledge: Not Dirt Cheap.

    • Re:Silent? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by interkin3tic (1469267) on Friday September 28, 2012 @12:50PM (#41489973)

      the amount of actual science we do seem to keep falling.

      From my perspective it seems the opposite. I'm a biologist, more powerful tools are coming out faster than I can keep up with them. When I started my PhD, the microscope we had was really nice. By the end, it was essentially obsolete. It was a laser scanning confocal, a spinning disc was installed next door that was much faster and a super-resolution microscope was on it's way. That was a few months ago.

      There are potential budget cuts looming unless the tea party and republicans suddenly decide they'd rather cooperate with Obama and be rational. And that is annoying and stupid, but look at the funding for the national institute of health, which sponsors a lot of biology research. 1993-2009 [healthpolcom.com] and 2004 to 2012 [sfn.org]. It's up pretty significantly in the last decade.

  • Aren't telescopes already silent?
    • Re:Noisy Telescopes (Score:4, Interesting)

      by NixieBunny (859050) on Friday September 28, 2012 @12:18PM (#41489513) Homepage
      I sleep under a radio telescope (the SMT on Mt. Graham) when I'm on site for several days. It creaks and groans like an old pirate ship.
    • by Shag (3737)

      Most telescopes on Mauna Kea are relatively quiet, both in terms of the mount moving and the dome rotating. Sometimes you'll hear a creak, or a clunk as a contact switch gets tripped or a chain moves to open or close something. One exception is Japan's Subaru Telescope, which when the dome drives are turned on plays a recurring audible alert in the area of the dome - Bwoop! Bwoop! "Warning! Dome drives are on! Dome could move at any moment!" (and then repeating it in Japanese).

  • Not just the GBT (Score:5, Informative)

    by mendelrat (2490762) on Friday September 28, 2012 @11:50AM (#41489117)
    Not just the GBT is at risk in all of this, and honestly NRAO is being selfish and shortsighted in their responses to the portfolio review. There are 5 optical telescopes at the national observatory at Kitt Peak, AZ that are set to be divested from the NSF as well, and their loss is much, much more devastating to the amount of open-access telescope time that is set to be lost if the facilities are closed or go into closed private partnerships. The closing of the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) means the loss of literally a one-of-a-kind setup as well. It's bad across all parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, but the decision to stop spending money on these telescopes preserves the NSF astronomy grants program which funds a ton of astronomers, engineers, and students of all levels (myself included). The portfolio review didn't come up with any answers that we liked, but at least it's an honest estimate of what we have vs. what we expect funding wise; things are getting even worse with the upcoming budget sequestration. The big worry among astronomers is that we're returning to a time when only large institutions have access to telescope time, the exact reasoning behind the creation of the US national observatory system in the first place. Public-private partnerships will likely come around somehow to keep these facilities operating, but it's early still to know what those will entail in terms of open-access telescope time.
    • Re:Not just the GBT (Score:4, Informative)

      by tizan (925212) on Friday September 28, 2012 @12:33PM (#41489733)

      Just a clarification: NRAO manages only the GBT and VLBA ..the optical telescopes are managed by a sister institute NOAO (note the O for optical).
      So NRAO at best can fight/defend the cases for GBT and VLBA only.

      Yes sucks big time for everybody though as even small funds for hardware/instrument development for astronomy at universities is recommended to be defunded.

      • Yes, NRAO and NOAO are very different and in charge of different things.

        But contrast NRAO's initial response ( here [nrao.edu]) to that of NOAO (here [noao.edu]) or even AURA (here, sorry its a PDF [aura-astronomy.org]) to see the different approaches that are possible.

        NRAO essentially criticize the portfolio review process and reject the results outright without consideration and essentially hopes that the NSF figures out a better way: "AUI and NRAO encourage the NSF to work with its other federal agency counterparts to consider a more balance
    • I didn't see a link to the actual portfolio review (pdf) [nsf.gov]

      Programs at risk:

      Our portfolios for Scenarios A and B do not include the Nicholas U. Mayall, Wisconsin-Indiana-Yale-NOAO (WIYN), and 2.1-meter telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, the Very Long Baseline Array, nor the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope. We recommend that AST divest from these facilities before FY17.

      Scenarios A and B are as follows:

      This Portfolio Review Committee was convened to recommend AST portfolios best suited to achieving the decadal survey goals under two budget scenarios: (A) AST purchasing power drops to 90% of FY11 levels, then rises to 106% of FY11 by FY22, and (B) AST purchasing power drops to 80% of FY11 levels by mid-decade, and remains flat through FY22. By FY22, the projected AST budget is only 65% in Scenario A and 50% in Scenario B of the budget NWNH assumed in recommending an AST portfolio. Indeed the AST budget is already $45M short of NWNH projections for FY12. This presents a considerable challenge in implementing the strong NWNH recommendations for both new facilities and for maintaining the strength of the grants programs. AST must find the proper balance between current facilities and new endeavors, between large projects and small grants, and between risk and reward. It must continue to invest in the training of a highly skilled and creative workforce.

      So to get the GBT back on line would require that austerity be fucked long and hard.

      • Curiously, they're just bringing ALMA online. It was a billion dollar project that ran over budget. I imagine that it costs about $50 million a year to run.

        That's the nature of Big Science. They have to cut a dozen old scopes to pay for one new instrument. fortunately, the new instrument can do wonderful new things. Unfortunately, it only can do one astronomer's observation at a time.
  • I'm hoping we are learning to take science (particularly space in this case) out of the 'gov't' sector...if this telescope was privately funded, they wouldn't have to be dealing with partisan crap based on ideological 'budgets'...politics...but that's the price for receiving 'public funding'...*shrugs*
    • by Jeng (926980)

      Ok, so how exactly do you make money off of this?

      This type of research is funded by the government because there is no incentive for private enterprise to do something like this because there is no way to profit off of this.

      • it's worse than that. the great republican governor of new jersey killed funding for a new tunnel between manhattan and midtown. it's expensive. apparently more expensive than the quality of life of thousands of new jersey residents who commute to manhattan

        but there's no business case for it in a short sighted, easily quantified bottom line oriented way. but certain free market fundamentalist idiots believe this is the only valid way to look at any question of government policy. their stupid quasireligion o

    • Yep, that's why there are so few privately funded large telescopes in the world - it's the damn government undercutting the price that private companies would be willing to pay! And private companies have no bias whatsoever, so there will never be any partisan crap - ever! Woo! Privately funded astronomy will rock! I'm sure my 24-inch Celestron will revolutionize the field of astronomy!

      Yeah, go private industry! Suck it, government!

      Sigh. Can't believe someone actually thinks like that.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 28, 2012 @11:52AM (#41489159)

    First its cuts to fund the Platonic schools. Then its limits on what can be said at the agora (nothing bad can be said about senators or Caesar). Then its cuts to the Legion. You change their breakfast diet, then you go for lower quality swords and shields. Then you ask that they join the legion with their own sword and shield. In a few short years, you go from ruling the world, to losing Brittania, then Gaul, and finally fighting off the Hun, and ultimately watching Rome burn. But start off by being cheap with the scholars. That's right. We already know all there is to know. Oh, by the way, are those proposing cuts from Crete? They seem like Cretans.

    • by CRCulver (715279)

      First its cuts to fund the Platonic schools...

      That part of the Roman Empire that eradicated classical Platonic education (Byzantium) managed to last another thousand years -- and with high literacy rates and intact trading links with the rest of the world -- after the Western Roman Empire fell. If you want to propose a slippery slope, that's not the best start.

  • by confused one (671304) on Friday September 28, 2012 @12:07PM (#41489365)
    Of course they're cutting funding. Green Banks has come close to finding the aliens living in orbit around a couple of nearby stars on several occasions. Damn close. The government needs to cut funding to prevent identification of the aliens --- the powers that be are aware of the aliens and know what kind of retribution they will bring on the Earth if humans become aware of "other" species existence. There has been very limited contact through Air Force satellites. The aliens have made their intentions very clear: As long as we remain a quaint backwater planet with no ability to travel off the small rock we live on, we are not a threat. As soon as we become a threat, the simplest course of action is to exterminate all life on the planet (that would be us). If Green Banks manages to identify the aliens, noone will be able to keep it quiet. It will drive interest in space exploration, funding for the space program, development of space vessels and then the genie is out of the bottle, so to speak. It cannot be allowed to happen. So, it is the Government's intention to quash funding for NRO and NASA, for the preservation of the human race.
    • by Jeng (926980)

      But we make such great pets.

      • And we're tasty too!

        • by Jeng (926980)

          I was going to disagree with you about us being eaten due to us being foreign biology and low energy density and a bunch of other stuff, but then thought "Well, what if we really are tasty?".

          • maybe we are "snack food" for some other species. we already have a common thing with Vampires calling us "happy meals on 2 legs" so what do you think??

            • by Jeng (926980)

              It would be so wasteful for a species that can travel the stars to do so for the express purpose of finding new intelligent species and eating them.

              I think it would be much more likely that we would be either pets, workers, soldiers, or as a biological base to be transformed into something else more useful to them :borg or biological computing :brains of the ship but no body.

        • "It's a cookbook!" "A cookbook!"
      • Free food, a back yard to play with, all the toys we could want, and someone to pick up your fecal matter. Life could be worse.

    • Or, it's the other way. They've already found the aliens, and they're afraid that Congress will find out and declare war, since the #1 reaction to what we don't understand is to blow it to hell. And to do that, we'd need to develop interstellar travel, strap it to some W83 warheads, and send it off to the aliens; who really just want to pirate our TV from satellites.

      This is actually a way to save a lot more money by saving a pittance of money.

  • They should defund the Senate Launch System instead and fund more of these science programs. (Like a few more Mars Rovers).

    • Wait, we get to launch the Senate? Do we have to bring them back?

      • by jfengel (409917)

        Sadly, no. It means that it's the Senate's launch system, i.e. the one they're buying with taxpaper money so that Senators (specifically Senators in Florida and Texas) can get reelected. It was specified in ways such that big space tech vendors were the only ones who were in the running to build it.

  • God forbid our kids might learn some real science, lets just send them to Sunday school instead.
  • by Ravensfire (209905) on Friday September 28, 2012 @12:19PM (#41489519) Homepage

    Isn't this the way it should be working? Allocate X dollars to group. Group really needs X + Y dollars to do everything they want so they create a group to review all the projects and allocate the dollars. If you don't have enough funding, programs WILL be cut or scaled back. Save program A and program B is cut, which costs jobs around program B. Congrats though, program A's jobs are intact.

    Prioritization sucks but if you don't have all the funding you need you have to make the call at some point. Having a (theoretically neutral) group review everything and make the call is better than having Congress make the decisions for you. And yeah, it would be much better for everyone if there was enough funding, that's the easy way out of this dilemma.

    -- Ravensfire

  • GBT (Score:4, Funny)

    by Stele (9443) on Friday September 28, 2012 @12:24PM (#41489575) Homepage

    I can't help but think it would be better funded if it had some lesbians too.

    • by kiehlster (844523)
      I knew there was something queer about that acronym. But now the whole thing looks... *sunglasses* lavender.
  • I thought that the telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico [naic.edu] was the US's biggest telescope. Did Puerto Rico vote for independence while we weren't looking?

  • by schwit1 (797399) on Friday September 28, 2012 @12:56PM (#41490059)

    Having Bob Byrd or Bud Shuster's name on any project implies it had no redeeming value other than helping the pol get reelected. Thankfully both are gone.

  • A bit of history (Score:4, Informative)

    by Urban Garlic (447282) on Friday September 28, 2012 @01:21PM (#41490309)

    So this unit has a bit of history [nrao.edu] -- there used to be a 300-foot diameter transit telescope on the site, which collapsed in 1988. The Byrd telescope was an upgrade, being fully steerable and covering more of the spectrum. The location is fairly special too, it's in a radio-quiet zone with some other NRAO telescopes, and close to the Navy's radio observatory site.

    The thing only started working in August of 2000, it seems a shame to shut it down after such a small fraction of its expected operating lifetime.

    • by Rhys (96510)

      Its potentially even more tragic if shutting it down ends up with the cell companies pushing through an elimination of the radio-quiet zone. The existence of said zone is probably a resource we won't be able to recover if it is lost.

  • Has anyone actually READ the Review's reasons for de-funding the telescope, or did everyone who posted here, just settle for the lazy brain knee-jerk reaction response? Is there perhaps given a reality of limited funding that there are OTHER science projects that need a greater priority? Maybe the choice this time isn't between science and welfare, but science and science?
    • by Chris Burke (6130)

      Nope haven't read it, but the reasoning is certainly a matter of science versus science given the expected budgets.

      The reason the budget is what it is, and we have to make such constrained decisions (obviously there would always be some science-versus-science trade off) is because of our relative priorities of science, welfare, war, etc.

      So it's not unreasonable to discuss that. I know when I look at something like JWST vs other projects that can't be pursued if we continue with JWST, what bothers me most i

  • by slapout (93640) on Friday September 28, 2012 @01:46PM (#41490605)

    Maybe if they didn't spend so much money on other things [senate.gov] they could afford to keep it.

  • and other high profile rich Dems continously cry about how they don't pay enough in taxes, blah blah blah. Well, here's a suggestion: get together and fund the GBT. Or a few other projects that face the federal axe. Of course this will never happen, at least not until pigs fly in things other than airplanes.

  • Air Conditioning the Military Costs More Than NASA's entire Budget: http://gizmodo.com/5813257/air-conditioning-our-military-costs-more-than-nasas-entire-budget [gizmodo.com]
    That says a lot about this country and where it's headed. It has no problem cooling troops in a war that has no purpose and no end, even when "we are broke!". But funding anything that might be remotely useful? Forget it!

One man's "magic" is another man's engineering. "Supernatural" is a null word. -- Robert Heinlein

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