Happy New Year!
As we look forward to 2007 and beyond, we are happy to note that the prospect for exciting new research enabled by the NRAO continues to look bright. The science capability and impact of the Green Bank Telescope (GBT) is increasing steadily, and the GBT’s recent discoveries include the fastest millisecond pulsar, multiple molecules, and a water giga-maser associated with a high redshift quasar. The remarkable Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) astrometric accuracy of a few micro-arcseconds is being applied to an increasing number of important scientific problems, such as the proper motion of M33, the determination of sub-parsec accuracy distances to premain sequence stars, and direct distance measurement to a mega-maser beyond 100 Mpc. The Very Large Array (VLA) continues as the world’s premier imaging radio telescope, recently revealing intergalactic shocks that arise from the formation of a galaxy cluster; the Expanded VLA (EVLA) project is proceeding well and will soon improve the array’s sensitivity by ten-fold. To facilitate significant science objectives, the NRAO will continue to devote up to 50 percent of the observing time on all its telescopes to Key and Legacy projects requiring more than 200 hours.
Two major new facilities, the EVLA and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), will be available for early science in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Around 2012, together with other flagship observatories that will come on-line across the electromagnetic spectrum, the NRAO telescope suite will constitute a set of powerful research facilities that the astronomy community will employ to explore the Universe and open new frontiers.
To fulfill its mission of enabling cutting-edge research in the study of the Universe using radio astronomy techniques, attracting and training future scientists and engineers, and stimulating public interest in science, the NRAO has undertaken an extensive strategic planning process. This process is especially timely now that the Senior Review committee report has been released. This report notes the NRAO’s excellent record of managing its world-class observatories and recommends that radio astronomy leadership remain centered at the NRAO, given its scale. The report emphasizes that the VLBA is the premier scientific instrument for Very Long Baseline Interferometry and is poised to produce its strongest scientific contributions. It further notes that the angular resolution of the VLBA is not likely to be superseded even by the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and, thus, the VLBA provides a unique capability. The GBT is identified by the Senior Review report as a part of the base program in U.S. astronomy, a “new and highly promising telescope” that has already made significant scientific discoveries.
The report does recommend some reductions and changes at the NRAO. Specifically, the report recommends that: VLBA operations make a transition to a significant reliance on international funding by 2011 or risk closure; GBT operations cost be reduced; and scientific staff cost be reduced. In developing its strategic plan for the next decade and beyond, the NRAO will coherently address many issues, including the Senior Review recommendations.
For the NRAO to continue delivering scientifically effective and cutting-edge facilities for the astronomical community, as in the case of helping to realize the SKA, an excellent scientific staff is essential. Not only does the scientific staff serve in key management and operations roles, they also provide a good fraction of the scientific and technical innovation needed to develop next generation facilities. The NRAO is developing a strategic staffing plan that is optimized for cost and effectiveness, and addresses the natural turnover that will occur in the scientific staff in the next few years.
In the end, it is the science enabled by the NRAO that justifies its operations. Over the past few years, the NRAO has been continuously making changes across the Observatory to increase its science impact and improve its cost effectiveness. These changes will continue into the future so that the NRAO will remain a flagship observatory at radio wavelengths for the U.S. and international astronomy communities for decades to come.
Fred K. Y. Lo