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Science Still Has a Strong Foothold on St. Croix

The radio telescope on St. Croix is the easternmost point of the Very Long Baseline Array system, 10 dishes stretching from St. Croix to Hawaii.

The radio telescope on St. Croix is the easternmost point of the Very Long Baseline Array system, 10 dishes stretching from St. Croix to Hawaii.

Science has been under attack by religious people denying evolution and moneyed interests denying that burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, dramatically affect the earth’s climate.

The attack has not gone unnoticed on St. Croix, where about 30 people marched on April 22, Earth Day, in Frederiksted in support of scientific efforts.

But amid all this worry, the people behind the largest scientific information gathering device in the Virgin Islands feel pretty safe for a while.

Dave Finley said the operations system behind the 260-ton, 10-story high radio telescope, which looks like a giant dish antenna 82 feet in diameter on the eastern end of St. Croix, is “fully funded through the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Naval Observatory, and we anticipate that it will continue to be funded for a planned multi-decade lifespan.”

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Finley is in Socorro, New Mexico, the site from which the Very Long Baseline Array’s (VLBA) 10 radio telescopes are remotely controlled. Finley is the public information officer for the overall system.

Greg Worrell is the station chief on St. Croix. His job, and that of his assistant, is the technical maintenance of the system. All control of the system, which picks up faint radio signals and allows astronomers to make detailed observations of celestial objects, comes from New Mexico. Worrell’s assessment of funding for the system was not as long term as Finlay’s. Worrell, in answer to questions about funding, answered, “We are good for this fiscal year.”

The VLBA has been in operation since 1993, producing the highest-resolution images available to astronomers. These images are used for many purposes beyond simply understanding the universe. They also are used for mapping the Milky Way Galaxy and providing key information about how stars and planets are formed.

Also listed as a VLBA’s subject of research is “to study the Earth, by making extremely precise geodetic measurements that contribute to advancing our understanding of plate tectonics, earthquakes, and climate change.”

Climate change is an area of study that President Donald Trump has advocated deep, almost complete, funding cuts. However, recent budgets deals he has made with Congress indicate he won’t get those cuts, at least not right away.

Scientific areas that the radio telescope system has recently helped clarify may not be easily grasped by a lay person.

“Astronomers using the super-sharp radio vision of the National Science Foundation’s Very Long Baseline Array have found the shredded remains of a galaxy that passed through a larger galaxy, leaving only the smaller galaxy’s nearly-naked supermassive black hole to emerge and speed away at more than 2,000 miles per second,” a November news release said.

In January the radio telescopes resolved some mystery about where space’s Fast Radio Bursts originate. A news release concerning them said, “Fast Radio Bursts are highly-energetic, but very short-lived (millisecond) bursts of radio waves whose origins have remained a mystery since the first one was discovered in 2007. That year, researchers scouring archived data from Australia’s Parkes Radio Telescope in search of new pulsars found the first known FRB — one that had burst in 2001.”

The release went on to say that, through the use of VLBA, the origin of Fast Radio Bursts is being pinpointed.

The construction of the VLBA began in February 1986. The first astronometrical observation using all ten antennas was carried out on May 29, 1993. The total cost of building the VLBA was about $85 million.

The St. Croix radio telescope is the eastern most of the VLBA system. The westernmost antenna, in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, is almost 5,000 miles away. Together with the telescopes in between they produce an image as though the array were a single antenna with a diameter equal to that of the earth. The VLBA websites claims that if there was a football game on the moon the game could be watched through it.

Along with Hawaii and the Virgin Islands, radio dishes for the VLBA are in: Owens Valley, California; Brewster, Washington; Los Alamos, New Mexico; North Liberty, Iowa; Hancock, New Hampshire; Kitt Peak, Arizona; Pie Town, New Mexico; and Fort Davis, Texas.

Editor’s note: This story has been edited after posting to correct the spelling of a name. The Source regrets the error.

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