TAEM interview with Dr. Karen O’Neil of GBT

oneil_telescope.jpsTAEM- The Arts and Entertainment Magazine is thrilled to interview Dr. Karen O’Neil of the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (or GBT). Our publisher had visited the facilities several years ago, and he posted his visit in another segment of the Science section of TAEM. The observatory is a much recommended site for those interested in astronomy and radio astronomy. Dr. O’Neil is the site Director and we are very excited to be able to tell her story.

Dr. O’Neil, Please tell our readers about your educational background and your interest in astronomy.

KO- I have always been fascinated with the why and how of most everything.  I was initially drawn to working in physics and mathematics as these subjects are the primary foundation for all scientific phenomena.  Yet the more I studied these two fields the more I realized my fascination was not with the details of how things work as the broader question of why the Universe looks, and behaves, as it does.  Telescope images of the planets and other galaxies are both beautiful and fascinating to me, leading me to wonder why. Why do galaxies have swirls and bubbles in their gas and dust?  How doe stars go supernovae?  Why does the sun flare?  And the more I learned about galaxies and stars the more the field of astrophysics fascinated me, drawing me in until I finally moved all my studies and subsequent research into the field of astrophysics.

I received my Bachelor of Science degree from Marlboro College in physics and mathematics.  Both my Master degree and PhD are from the University of Oregon’s physics department.

GBT4_RGB2002_hiTAEM- How did your education prepare you for your current position at the Observatory ?

KO- The undergraduate school I attended, Marlboro College, is highly focused on individual research and responsibility.  This was excellent preparation for both graduate school and my future career, where the ability to work independently and reliably has remained extremely important.  The coursework I took was, of course, also extremely important.  Clearly the classes directly in my field on mathematics, physics, and astronomy were vital is providing me with a sufficient understanding to accomplish my research career.  However the “non-core” courses in religion, literature, and philosophy which I took as an undergraduate have also served me extremely well, providing me with a broad base from which to understand my research and related work.

TAEM- Please describe the current facilities to our readers.

gbt2_3rgb2002_fKO- The National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Green Bank site is home to seven large radio telescopes ranging in size from 14m – 100m in diameter. The site also has significant infrastructure which allows for the installation of any instrument which may benefit from the radio quiet location of the site, as well as an excellent test range for receivers and other hardware and a large anechoic chamber outfitted for testing antenna beam patterns and radio emissions from all types of equipment. The primary function of the Green Bank site is for scientific research of all types. As a result the facility telescopes have been used in a wide variety of ways, including satellite tracking, spacecraft tracking, atmospheric studies, monitoring of astronomical and planetary phenomenon, and educational programs.   The site is also the location of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Center for Science Education, which brings roughly 50,000 visitors each year to learn more about astronomy and science.  Finally, The NRAO Green Bank, West Virginia site lies within both the National and West Virginia Radio Quiet zones, providing a unique level of protection against radio interference for all projects which occur on site.  Facilities on the site also include an indoor and outdoor antenna test range and a large anechoic chamber which can be used for the determination of radio emissions from many types of equipment.

TAEM- Please describe the Main Dish for us.

45footKO- The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, or GBT, is the world’s premiere single-dish radio telescope operating at meter to millimeter wavelengths. Its enormous 100-meter diameter collecting area, its unblocked aperture, and its excellent surface accuracy provide unprecedented sensitivity across the telescope’s full 0.1 – 116 GHz (3.0m – 2.6mm) operating range.

TAEM- What is its flexibility and ease of use?

KO- Part of the scientific strength of the GBT is its flexibility and ease of use, allowing for rapid response to new scientific ideas.  It is scheduled dynamically to match project needs to the available weather.  The GBT is also readily reconfigured with new and experimental hardware, adopting the best technology for any scientific pursuit. Facilities of the Green Bank Observatory are also used for other scientific research, for many programs in education and public outreach, and for training students and teachers.

TAEM- What other site instruments are there, and who uses them?

KO- The site hosts a total of 9 telescopes, including the GBT.  In addition to the GBT, these are:

  • A 40’ diameter radio telescope used for educational purposes
  • A 20m diameter telescope which is not part of the SkyNet educational project
  • A 14m telescope which is looking at the Sun’s radio waves to look for, and study, solar bursts of energy
  • A 43m diameter telescope which is being refurbished to work as a ground station for the Russian RadioAstron astronomical satellite
  • Two small arrays of radio telescopes. One, called PAPER, is being used to look at the earliest times in the Universe.  The second is part of the LOFASM experiment which is looking for “radio transients” – brief bursts of energy from astronomical sources.
  • The remaining three site telescopes, all of which are 85’ in diameter, are not in current use.

40footTAEM- What do the facilities and instruments offer, and who is able to use them?

KO- The GBT is currently open for use by any qualified researcher in the world.  Observing time is granted based on the highest scientifically ranked proposals.  This mode of operation, though, is likely to change as the funding from the National Science Foundation for the instrument decreases over the next few years.

TAEM- What recent discoveries has the facilities made in nearby galaxies?

KO- Some very recent newsworthy discoveries from the GBT include:

  • Using areas of intense star formation to understand and map the Milky Way galaxy
  • Discovery of a new galaxy which, along with its companions, appears to ripping apart a nearby neighbor, the M101 galaxy
  • A surprising discovery of a massive outburst of energy from a nearby galaxy
  • Using the GBT to search for gravitational waves, ripples in space-time predicted to exist by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity

Further details about these, and other, discoveries can be found at


20MeterTAEM- With the latest interests from scientists about Exoplanets and Binary Stars, how can GBT help in their research?

KO- By studying the emission of pulsars – rapidly rotating, extremely dense, stars, radio telescopes, including the GBT, have are commonly used to look for and study binary stars and have been used in the past for the discovery of exoplanets.  In fact the first exoplanets was discovered using a large radio telescope.

TAEM- What programs have been created for GBT’s use in the past, and what future programs for its use are planned?

KO- The near future the GBT will contribute to our understanding in areas as diverse as the detection of gravity waves, the formation of stars, galaxies and galaxy clusters, the origin of life, the composition of the planets and their satellites, and the scientific principles that govern the Universe.  Although the most important science may come from projects not yet conceived, there are a number of key science areas in which the GBT will excel over the coming decade.

  • Fundamental Physics:  As I mentioned earlier, the GBT is the central instrument of the NANOGrav collaboration’s efforts to detect space-time ripple, known as gravitational radiation. Direct detection of gravitational waves through pulsar timing will open a completely new window on physical processes in the Universe and confirm this fundamental prediction of general relativity.
  • Stellar Birth and Evolution:  There are many mysteries about star formation. It occurs on the scale of a solar system, but can be triggered by events at the scale of a galaxy, through a wide variety of mechanisms.  The GBT is ideally suited for measuring conditions in areas where stars are forming in both both nearby and distant galaxies.
  • Origin of Life:  How did life come to be on Earth?  This question is as old as humanity, and the answer will require research across many fields, from biology and chemistry,  to physics and astronomy.  The GBT has a leading role in this research, detecting many new organic molecules in space, including bmpre-biotic molecules and basic sugars, both necessary ingredients to life.

TAEM- Can you proved links to how GBT can be reached by students, teachers, and the public to visit and use the facilities, and can group tours to GBT be accepted?

KO- The primary link to the public tours and other information for visiting the Green Bank site is http://www.nrao.edu/index.php/learn/gbsc

Information about the GBT and other site telescopes, as well as links to the various news articles on the GBT can be found at https://science.nrao.edu/facilities/gbt.

TAEM- Dr. O’Neil, it has been an honor and a privilege to be able to interview you for our publication. I am sure that the many students who use our magazine as a learning tool for their careers will be thrilled to learn of your work and of the GBT facilities. Thank you for your time, and please promise to keep us informed of any new information that GBT offers.