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US radio telescopes to close

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) is shuttering all of its North American facilities as of 7 PM Eastern time on 4 October, thanks to the government shutdown.

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Henry Newton; NRAO

Telescopes to be closed include the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array and the Very Long Baseline Array outside Socorro, New Mexico, plus the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. All are iconic radio telescopes with active observing programmes.

After the government closed on 1 October, the NRAO had about a week’s worth of operating funds that carried it until today, says Anthony Beasley, director of the NRAO, which is based in Charlottesville, Virginia. The observatory is funded by the National Science Foundation.

A skeleton staff will maintain physical security around the antennas, but most of the NRAO’s 475 employees are going on unpaid furlough, Beasley says. Staff will maintain minimal power to the equipment, including cryogenically cooled receivers that will be kept cold rather than allowed to warm up and then cooled down, expensively, if and when operations resume.

Beasley estimates that NRAO facilities can be up and running within 2–3 days after a government restart. In the meantime, a secondary telescope at Green Bank will continue to work to provide a downlink for a Russian radio astronomy experiment, and two antennas of the Very Long Baseline Array will remain live to help the US Naval Observatory, which relies on them for mission operations.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope array in Chile, which NRAO is a partner in, will remain open for now. Beasley says that the NRAO has about a month’s worth of funding left for its ALMA contributions.

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