Green Bank goes private

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The competition heats up: The Green Bank radio telescope in West Virginia, having lost most of its government funding, has switched to a private model where they compete for customers on the open market.

[T]hey petitioned to retain a fraction of NSF funding and make up the difference with private contracts—a model then unheard of. Eventually, the NSF agreed to fund about 60 percent of Green Bank’s operations in 2017, tapering to 30 percent in 2018.

To add cash flow to that federal tributary, Green Bankers had to nail down private contracts. The 140-foot telescope, home to the biggest ball bearing in the world, will download data from the Russian Space Agency’s on-orbit radio telescope, RadioAstron, which will also hook up with the newer telescope to form a high-resolution array. The North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves has commissioned the flagship Green Bank Telescope to watch their network of pulsars for fingerprints of gravitational waves.

And Breakthrough Listen—a search for extraterrestrial intelligence—will look for the technological fingerprints of aliens. The project, funded by rich-guy Yuri Milner, will watch the sky 1,300 hours a year, debiting $2 million from Milner annually and depositing it into Green Bank’s coffers.

In other words, they are marketing the telescope to the open market, selling time to use it to whoever has a need. And apparently, there is a need, though I suspect operations at the telescope will have to become leaner and meaner and more efficient to stay in the black. Which is to the good.


  • wayne

    Interesting over-view video is at:
    But no real details on the new business model.
    (I was unaware of the “National Radio Quiet Zone.”)

    How does this compare with the Arecibo radio-telescope (& their SETI stuff,) and who is funding them currently?

  • Wayne: Green Bank is much much much smaller. In fact, Green Bank was mostly built as pork pushed through by Senator Robert Byrd. While it has done some good science, it was never on the cutting edge. As a private facility however it is more likely to provide services that are appropriate to its design.

  • wayne

    Thank you.

    -I seem to recall… one of their (original) radio-telescopes, collapsed in the late 80’s(?) (metal fatigue but 20+ years in service, something like that, or heavy snow…)

    OK… it’s the “Robert Byrd Green Bank Telescope,”
    >It’s all clear to me now!

    I would think their “radio quiet zone” would have some sort of valued-added proposition involved (?) unless it’s all showboating.

    The British have the Jodrell Bank facility but I have no clue how they compare.

  • wayne

    related to radio-telescopes and SETI type activity

    This is a very nicely done lecture.
    (Gresham College Public Lecture)

    “Are We Alone? The Search for Life Beyond the Earth”
    Professor Ian Morison of Jodrell Bank Observatory & Gresham College.
    (1 hour)

    Not overly technical/esoteric but not dumbed down. (and no UFO’s) And with a focus on the contribution of radio-astronomy.
    Lots-o-graphics/pictures & he’s a good presenter.

  • Wayne: Green Bank has always had only one antenna dish. It was this single dish that collapsed decades ago, and then took almost 20 years for the replacement to be funded and built.

    The radio quiet zone was established so that both Green Bank and a now no-longer-used military facility would not get interference from other radio sources. No showboating was involved. It is for this reason that radio telescopes are generally placed in out-of-the-way places, and why putting one on the far side of the Moon is very appealing to astronomers.

  • Localfluff

    I like it using interferometry with Radioastron, the worlds largest space telescope at 10 m diameter, up to 390,000 km away, allowing tremendous resolution. I’m surprised that not more sensational discoveries are reported from it. $1,500 an hour is btw cheaper than I had expected to rent such a facility.

  • Edward

    If you ever get a look at the US radio frequency spectrum allocation, you will find a few — very few — narrow frequencies set aside for radio astronomy.

    It had been my belief, over the decades, that Green Bank was treasured for its location, which provides a relative quiet across most or all radio frequencies. That the NSF is reducing funding tells me that it is not so treasured after all.

    SETI’s Allen Telescope Array is tucked into a valley, far from cities, so that radio noise is lower than most places, but radio silence is not guaranteed (e.g. people driving through the valley with their cell phones “shouting” out to the nearest cell tower). SETI, too, sells ATA telescope time, because SETI is not funded well enough to keep the array to itself.

  • wayne

    Thank you!
    very interesting.
    (duh… I had some fantastical impression Green Bank was a “complex” of dishes & some sort of irreplaceable National-Treasure we had…)

    I’m going to delve into this topic a little further, …just thinking out loud.

    Ok.. so they only have the one dish, it’s large & moveable, but it’s only the one. (I was not aware of the 20 year gap! yowza. ) and Robert Byrd has his name on it… and they either have to sink or swim now that the NSF cut them off, so to speak. (this is interesting on a number of levels…)
    The Arecibo telescope is much larger, but its aim is limited.
    …they all have advantages/disadvantages, technical capabilities, & serve a variety of purposes (and task masters ) for a variety of “stakeholders.”
    >I do know the Jodrell Bank people operate a number of those “very large baseline arrays.” But that’s all British Government funded

    Just as a civilian, I am partial to optical telescopes & fantastic pictures, but it’s all cool!
    (appreciate the TMT update a few days ago)

    Fully support privatizing these type of facilities. I do support “Science,” but prefer free-market mechanisms to spur it along. (We need to keep these people, on their toes. Nothing beats a little free-market capitalism to re-arrange Resources to their more efficient & higher purposes.)

    on a lighter note…

    Radar Men from the Moon
    (Commando Cody) episode one

  • wayne

    very cool, appreciate the factoids.

  • wayne

    I am going to look into this further….

    The big cost has to be salaries & staff, (and all that weird government-accounting they do.) but it appears like a step in the right direction. (I want to see their Electric Bill…)

    Do the Russians have any left-over Soviet radio telescopes? (I’d be surprised if they didn’t rent-them-out for hard currency, or did they get “recycled.”)

    I can’t help but think (and hope)… “at the right price, researchers should be lining up to use the equipment at Green Bank. It should be running 24/7.”

    We need just 1 Billionaire, who wants to make their mark in radio-astronomy! (Trump will build a large base-line array, on his wall! The DJT- VLBA… “yuuuggge.”)

  • Dave Williams

    Who are the purchasers and how much are they playing the Feds to privatize it?

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