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Nadia Drake: NSF investigating how to shut down Arecibo

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla

13-06-2016 15:28 CDT

Topics: radio telescopes

The giant Arecibo radio telescope is a scientific instrument without equal anywhere in the world. For planetary scientists, it has unique capabilities to discover the natures of near-Earth objects, and is a valuable tool in our efforts to study, and reduce the risk from, potentially hazardous asteroids. It's been used to study everything from ice on Mercury to lakes on Titan. But it's expensive to maintain, and its funding agency, the National Science Foundation (NSF), has had a flat budget for years, leading to a decade of threats of defunding and/or closure.

National Geographic writer Nadia Drake has been following the status of Arecibo very closely. She provides a history of the funding problems in a June 4 article, "Uncertain Future for Earth’s Biggest Telescope." The latest twist in the story is this:

On May 23, the National Science Foundation, which funds the majority of Arecibo’s annual $12 million budget, published a notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement related to the observatory’s future.

That might sound innocuous – after all, isn’t it a good idea to study the context in which our science facilities exist? Yet it’s anything but benign. Putting that environmental assessment together is a crucial step NSF needs to take if it plans to yank funding from the observatory and effectively shut it down.

I recommend reading the article for more. In a second article, published on June 10 after she attended the first public meeting required by the environmental impact assessment process, Nadia discusses the loss to science of the potential closure of Arecibo, including work on gravitational waves, climate change, and potentially hazardous asteroids. Equally important, she writes, is the value of Arecibo in inspiring Puerto Rican students into careers in the sciences. Read the article here: "With Earth’s Largest Telescope Threatened, Its Homeland Rallies." The NSF is accepting public comments until June 23.

Accounts you can follow on Twitter for news and updates on Arecibo include @NAICobservatory, @PlanetTreky, @robminchin, @joan_schmelz, and @nadiamdrake.

The 1000-ft Arecibo radio telescope

H. Schweiker / WIYN and NOAO / AURA / NSF

The 1000-ft Arecibo radio telescope
See other posts from June 2016


Or read more blog entries about: radio telescopes


Barnacle Bill: 06/13/2016 10:53 CDT

It will be a big loss for Venusian science as well if Arecibo gets the shut down. Reason is Acrecibo images between 1988 and 2012 showed distinct changes on planet Venus, ie, re-surfacing in areas that are likely to be new volcanic plains or new volcanic crater. See link below for the two view taken 24 years apart: The US looks like being on th cusp of proving there's active volcanism on Venus with Arecibo. Hope the funding remains for this great one and only radio telescope. Jodie Foster featured using the Acrecibo telescope in the film Contact as well, based on Carl Sagan's fiction, playing Dr Ellie Arroway. Instead of listening for aliens, nice if Jodie can listen in now and help save the radio telescope for all of us and our aliens who might one day dial in from star Vega with the prime numbers, just like she showed us in Contact.

YEG_steve: 06/14/2016 04:09 CDT

It seems to me that the Chinese "Five hundred Metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) might be a reasonable replacement for the Acrecibo radio telescope, and they plan to complete it this year: The big question mark is getting access to it.

Mewo : 06/14/2016 07:41 CDT

The radio telescope at Mopra was rescued from closure with a successful kickstarter campaign. Perhaps a similar campaign would help Arecibo. Being much bigger and more expensive, I wouldn't think it would do more than delay the end of operations. But even this would produce lots and lots of additional good science, prove to the government that public sentiment is in favour of keeping it open, and buy some time to secure another funding source.

LEA: 06/14/2016 09:28 CDT

Unfortunately, most of the populace doesn't understand the importance of scientific research and the impact a lack of it has on society. They are now consumed with election-year politics and terrorism. Maybe Elon Musk will just buy it. I'm always disheartened at the myopia exhibited by Congress when it comes to funding scientific research.

Emily Lakdawalla: 06/14/2016 06:34 CDT

YEG_steve: If you read the first article I linked to by Nadia Drake, you'll see that FAST is not a replacement for Arecibo because it does not have Arecibo's transmission capability.

Barnacle Bill: 06/15/2016 04:43 CDT

In a comment by Allison Smith to Nadia Drake's first article, there is an online petition to the White House we can sign. Extracted Allison's comments: ***TAKE ACTION: SIGN THE PETITION TO SUPPORT ARECIBO OBSERVATORY*** Here is the link to the petition mentioned in the article. 1. Click the link. 2. Submit your name and a valid email address. 3. Check your email and click the verification link to complete the process. 4. Please share the petition! The thing is, $12 million annual funding for Arecibo, this amount is insignificant when compared with the current political campaigns the US election will cost us all... see link below When will we have the likes of Great Presidents like: "Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth." - Abraham Lincoln

Tim: 06/15/2016 06:03 CDT

That radio telescope has contributed so much to science and it has the potential to do much more too. There ought to be no place for such mindless short termism especially when you consider that this is precisely the same type of radio telescope that China is now building.

Gary Fearon: 06/16/2016 03:45 CDT

2 years ago, I visited Wolfe Creek Crater in the north west of Australia. Here is a bolide crater, made about 300,000 years ago by a bolide of estimated mass 50,000 tonnes. The climb from rim to crater floor is tricky, about 60 meters. The crater diameter is about 870 meters. Over the millennia, the desert sands have filled the pit. Often wonder what it would be like to be dug out, lined with reflectors. Many would say no. But lets face it, many Moons ago, it hammered into the Earth, a Crater that could detect similar today detect other asteroids prior to them doing the grand slam.

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