Press Release

Associated Universities Will Continue to Manage the National Radio Astronomy Observatory

By SpaceRef Editor
November 21, 2015
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Associated Universities Will Continue to Manage the National Radio Astronomy Observatory

The National Science Board (NSB) announced today that the National Science Foundation (NSF) will negotiate a new 10-year, $862-million cooperative agreement with Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI) to manage the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).

This announcement caps an open competition by NSF to select the organization best able to operate and manage NRAO, which designs, builds, and operates the world’s most advanced and powerful radio telescopes. This selection recognizes AUI’s compelling vision in support of the scientific community and underscores NSF’s commitment to radio astronomy into the next decade.

“AUI is proud to have managed NRAO since its inception,” said AUI President Ethan Schreier. “During these nearly 60 years, NRAO has grown into one of the world’s foremost astronomy research facilities, providing unparalleled service to science and society by advancing our understanding of the cosmos. We look forward to continuing this vital work on behalf of the astronomy community.”

The new cooperative agreement is expected to begin on October 1, 2016. It will include operation of the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) [1], the North American share of the international Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) [2], and NRAO’s development laboratories and administrative and management functions.

AUI and NSF will finalize details of the cooperative agreement over the coming months.

“This decision by the National Science Foundation is the critical first step in moving NRAO forward into the next decade,” said Schreier. “We can now clarify the specific terms of the agreement and collectively chart the course for NRAO that best meets the rigorous scientific goals of the astronomers who use NRAO, and the needs of our international partners.”

Recent Milestones for NRAO and AUI

With the recent successful completion of ALMA construction and the remarkable enhancement of the VLA, two new forefront facilities are now in routine operation, with ever-increasing scientific capability.

“Taken together, these iconic instruments herald a golden age of discovery in modern astronomy and open up entirely new windows on the universe,” said AUI Board of Trustees Chair Roscoe Giles, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Boston University. “AUI is proud to have enabled the construction of these two unparalleled facilities simultaneously, ensuring that they were completed on time and within budget.”

In looking toward the future, NRAO will work in synergy with the next generation of Earth- and space-based telescopes — including the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope — to enable discovery across the entire observable spectrum and address many of the key problems in astrophysics.

“Scientists rely on the amazing capabilities of NRAO telescopes to push our understanding to new frontiers,” said NRAO Chief Scientist Chris Carilli. “The astronomy community will harness these unique resources to test the fundamental laws of physics, carry out high-precision cosmological measurements, study chemistry in objects ranging from our solar system to the first galaxies in the universe, probe deep into the earliest, most intense, and optically obscured phases of planet, star, galaxy, and black hole formation, and reveal the cool dense gas from which stars form.”

AUI’s Vision for NRAO

In developing their proposal to the NSF, AUI expressed a compelling vision for the NRAO that encompasses the widest range of current and future researchers. It states:

“AUI’s long-term vision for NRAO is based on meeting the evolving needs of the broad research and education communities. A major initiative will be to provide science-ready data products — fully calibrated, imaged, and de-convolved data cubes that can be used directly for scientific analysis that will be a key mechanism for expanding the NRAO user base, enabling multiwavelength studies and making radio astronomy accessible to all astronomers.

“AUI is committed to ensuring the NSF investment in NRAO achieves the broadest possible impact in cutting-edge research, advancing discovery and understanding, training the next generation of researchers, broadening participation of under-represented groups, and inspiring young students and the public at large.”

“As a member of the AUI Board, I am proud to be part of AUI’s mission and its exciting endeavors, particularly as they apply to its partners in Chile: promoting astronomy, outreach, and technology transfer,” said AUI Trustee María Teresa Ruiz, an astronomer and professor at the University of Chile.

“NRAO has quite literally changed how we see the universe,” said NRAO Director Tony Beasley. “Research on the most compelling challenges in all of science — the nature of black holes, the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, and the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe — absolutely requires the capabilities found in NRAO telescopes. It’s an exciting time and NRAO and AUI look forward to leading the way.”

Current Cooperative Agreement

Under the current cooperative agreement, NRAO, managed by AUI, also operates the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) [3] and the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) [4].

“AUI looks forward to working with NSF to determine a path forward for the GBT and VLBA that continues operations of these world-leading facilities and integrates their unique capabilities into the overarching strategic vision for astronomy research,” noted Schreier.

AUI will continue to foster strong partnerships with local communities in New Mexico, West Virginia, and Virginia to advance scientific discovery, enhance student learning, and promote innovation.

Dr. Schreier thanked all employees for their continued contributions to the success of NRAO. He noted that employee engagement is key to the Observatory’s performance, and referred to AUI’s continuing commitment to recruit, retain, develop, and support an expert scientific, engineering, technical, and administrative staff consistent with NSF’s strategic goal of cultivating a world-class, broadly inclusive science and engineering workforce. AUI looks forward to continuing its productive relationship with the local staff at ALMA on behalf of the ALMA partnership.

AUI was founded in 1946 as a partnership among nine U.S. universities. Since that time it has evolved into a broad scope, independent, non-profit organization dedicated to research, development, and education in the physical sciences. AUI’s goal is to support the research community and the government, enabling excellence in research, while ensuring effective and responsible use of science resources.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

Ethan J. Schreier
President, Associated Universities, Inc.
+1 202-462-1676

Tony Beasley
Director, National Radio Astronomy Observatory
+1 434-296-0211


[1] The VLA, which is made up of twenty-seven, 25-meter antennas in a Y-shape array, is the world’s leading centimeter-wavelength radio telescope. Constructed in the 1970s, the VLA completed a major upgrade in 2012, including a new suite of 1-50 GHz receivers, a digital data collection and transmission system, and a flexible wide-bandwidth correlator, which was provided by the National Research Council Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics in Canada with contributions from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. The improvement over previous performance is up to a factor of 10 in sensitivity and 1,000 or more in spectral resolution and the number of frequency channels.

[2] ALMA is an international partnership of North America, Europe, and East Asia. AUI serves as the North American Executive for ALMA, and North American construction activities were carried out by NRAO. The North American antenna contract represented the largest ever NSF procurement. Construction was formally completed in 2014. Early science observations commenced in 2011. ALMA is now in routine science operation and is undertaking its third round of community observing proposals.

[3] The GBT is the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope and the premier single-dish radio telescope operating at meter to millimeter wavelengths. Its 100-meter diameter collecting area, unblocked aperture, and excellent surface accuracy provide unprecedented sensitivity across the telescope’s full 0.1 — 116 GHz (3.0 m — 2.6 mm) operating range.

[4] The VLBA — an interferometer consisting of 10 identical, 25-meter antennas on transcontinental baselines up to 8,600 km long (Maunakea, Hawaii, to St. Croix, Virgin Islands) — is the world’s highest-resolution telescope in routine operation. The VLBA is controlled remotely from the Science Operations Center in Socorro, New Mexico, and observes at 1.2 GHz to 96 GHz (28 cm to 3 mm).

SpaceRef staff editor.