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A photo of a 25-meter radio telescope in New Mexico, part of the Very Long Baseline Array, at sunset

Going dark. A 25-meter radio telescope in New Mexico, part of the Very Long Baseline Array, is just one of a number of U.S. radio telescopes being turned off today as a result of the government shutdown.

NRAO/Ian Parker

Shutdown static blinds U.S. radio telescopes

U.S. radio telescopes are going off the air as a result of the government shutdown. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) is turning off its three U.S.-based facilities today because of a lack of funds, although it will be able to continue supporting a fourth international telescope based in Chile for a short while longer.

“We’re really at a dead halt,” NRAO Director Anthony Beasley tells ScienceInsider from the group’s headquarters in Charlottesville, Virginia. Some 385 NRAO staff members are being sent home, with about 90 remaining to look after sensitive equipment. Overall, it costs about $150,000 per day to keep the observatories running, Beasley estimates.

NRAO, largely funded by the National Science Foundation, is a coalition of universities that operates four facilities that collect electromagnetic signals from space:

  • The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in West Virginia, the world’s most sensitive single-dish radio telescope;
  • The Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), a 27-telescope array in New Mexico heavily used by astronomers;
  • The Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), a 10-telescope array spread across more than 8600 kilometers from Hawaii to the Virgin Islands that is used for high-resolution astronomy; and
  • The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an observatory in Chile run in partnership with Europe, Japan, and Chile.

Several thousand researchers use data from the telescopes to explore a wide range of questions, including how stars and galaxies behave and how the universe formed. A few hundred astronomers are especially heavy users, Beasley says.

Now, the GBT, VLA, and VLBA are all going offline, Beasley says. NRAO’s ALMA operations will continue “for another 3 or 4 weeks,” he says. “We have some additional resources in the bank in Chile.”

Although the shutdown began on 1 October, NRAO was able to stay open until today because it had some funding left over from the 2013 fiscal year, which ended on 30 September. “We were able to cruise out for a couple of days from the shutdown, but we couldn’t keep going,” Beasley says.

Shutting down the telescopes “isn’t as easy as flicking a switch,” he says. And the skeleton crew will be responsible for maintaining some sensitive parts, including cryogenically cooled electronics. If the shutdown goes into November, however, the telescopes could be in trouble. “This is a very difficult situation,” Beasley says, especially if it gets to the point where NRAO can’t pay its electric bills.

You can see our complete shutdown coverage here.