CAROL A. CLARK Monitor County Editor
Critical of early FY2009 budget plans for cutting radio astronomy, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., recently wrote a letter to National Science Foundation (NSF) Director Arden Bement. Domenici was sharply critical of preliminary budget instructions that would severely constrain funds for the National Astronomy Radio Observatories (NRAO), which oversees the operation of U.S. radio astronomy facilities like the the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) and Very Large Array (VLA), headquartered in an NRAO facility on the New Mexico Tech campus in Socorro.
Domenici issued a news release stating a tentative budget proposal that would result in the closure of the VLBA in New Mexico makes little sense in light of congressional efforts to double NSF funding in the near future.
The VLBA is a system of 10 radio telescopes controlled remotely from the Array Operations Center in Socorro that work together as the world's largest dedicated, full-time astronomical instrument. The massive white satellite dish that can be seen near Bandelier is part of the VLBA.
Under guidelines submitted by NSF for approval by the White House Office of Management and Budget, the NRAO would be forced to implement personnel layoffs in FY2008 and close the VLBA and Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia in 2010.
"It has recently come to my attention that the National Science Foundation continues to push forward to constrain the operations of its astronomy facilities with guidance that most certainly anticipates the closure of some of our world-class U.S. radio astronomy facilities," Domenici wrote Bement. "It makes no sense to me that the agency would proceed with an internal budgeting exercise that risks future U.S. leadership in radio astronomy, and moreover the closure of at least two of our premier U.S. facilities, at a time when the future looks very bright for the NSF."
NRAO Public Information Officer Dave Finley explained Thursday that the NRAO facility on the New Mexico Tech campus supports both the VLBA and the VLA.
"We consider all 10 dishes in the VLBA to be one instrument and all 27 dishes in the VLA to be one instrument," Finley said. "If the VLBA were to close, it would definitely include the Los Alamos dish."
The Los Alamos dish is located on a fenced-in area of land on Los Alamos National Laboratory property at TA-33. The NRAO leases the land from LANL.
To keep its competitive edge globally, and to continue to innovate in science and technology, Domenici stated in the letter, the U.S. needs its world-class facilities, such as the VLA and the VLBA.
"Without exception, both facilities carry out cutting-edge research in radio astronomy that is not duplicated elsewhere in the world," he said.
Domenici, who serves on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that funds the NSF, pointed out to Bement that the America COMPETES Act, which President George W. Bush is expected to sign into law this week, includes a provision to more than double NSF funding over the next five to 10 years.
Domenici asked to meet with Bement to discuss the NSF and NRAO budget outlook.
The Senate Appropriations Committee, has approved the FY2008 Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Bill that increases funding for NSF next year, providing $6.55 billion. This funding level is $125 million over the budget request and $636 million above the FY2007 funding level. The bill fully funds Bush's American Competitiveness Initiative and increases the NSF budget by more than 7 percent.
Finley said NRAO management has been talking with the NSF about the possible cuts. A committee has made some recommendations and Finley said they're hopeful some solutions can be reached.