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Say it Ain't So -- Arecibo May Go Dark in 5 Years

12/14/2006 09:11PM

Say it Ain't So -- Arecibo May Go Dark in 5 Years
An advisory panel to the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Astronomical Sciences, recommended a 24 percent cut in funding over the next three years for Arecibo Observatory. The panel also advised NAIC to find outside partners to cover another recommended 40 percent funding cut by 2011 or risk closure.

Joseph Burns, Cornell vice provost for physical sciences and engineering, issued a statement in response to the report: "Cornell supports the NSF's overall plan to find funds to carry out new initiatives, but we are disappointed with some of the Senior Review's specific recommendations into the next decade. We remain dedicated to the core scientific programs of the Arecibo Observatory and, accordingly, we are pleased that the review recognizes the facility's significant contributions today and its potential for important discoveries well into the next decade. Our staff will be working with our astronomy community to identify cost savings (and) we are confident that Arecibo's remarkable research and educational programs will be kept strong into 2011 and beyond."

The Arecibo Observatory's 305-meter diameter antenna, the world's largest and most sensitive radio-radar telescope, attracts more than 250 scientists to northwestern Puerto Rico from around the world every year and has been the source of pivotal discoveries about pulsars, planets, distant galaxies, near earth objects and the interstellar medium, as well as key findings about gravitational physics, atmospheric sciences and more.

Over its 43 years of operation, Arecibo has been used to make many important discoveries about pulsars (including the first binary pulsar), planets, and distant galaxies along with major contributions to gravitational physics and atmospheric sciences.

Arecibo has received several major upgrades in recent years. The Arecibo L-Band Feed Array (ALFA), which began operation in spring 2005, for example, allows researchers to survey large swaths of sky and search for such time-variable phenomena as pulsars seven times more efficiently than in the past.

Arecibo is also one of only two telescopes in the world with radar capability (the other is the Goldstone NASA tracking telescope in California). Radar research has yielded some of the most detailed imaging of the surface of the Moon, as well as a much more accurate characterization of the surfaces of other planets and near earth objects. It remains a vital tool for a wide range of studies in planetary science.

Cornell has operated Arecibo as a national facility since 1971, and in 2005 was awarded a cooperative agreement to continue operations until 2010.

The panel's report was based on an assumption that the NSF's overall budget would not increase in the next five years. It considered ongoing and future projects within three major branches of astronomy: optical and infrared astronomy; radio, millimeter and submillimeter astronomy; and solar astronomy.

"The idea of this exercise was to put us in a good position to move forward with a very exciting scientific program," said Wayne van Citters, director of the Division of Astronomical Sciences. "We have to look at it as a very positive step toward a bright future for astronomical sciences."

A project to upgrade the Arecibo telescope was carried out in the 1990’s supported by $25M of NSF funding augmented by funds from NASA and Cornell University. It is now instrumented for observations up to 10 GHz.

"The NSF has decided to cut the total budgets of their observatories by about 25 percent over the next three years in order to find about $20 million to $30 million in annual funds; these will be used for the operating costs of new telescopes and for the development of new instruments and telescopes," explained Joseph Burns, Cornell Vice Provost for Physical Sciences and Engineering.

"The Senior Review panel is addressing a real problem: How to maintain existing facilities and build new ones at the same time? Our aspirations often exceed our budget constraints," said Jim Cordes, Cornell astronomy professor.

"The whole world loses if funding is lost for Arecibo," said Lance Benner, a research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, who uses the telescope to track near-earth asteroids. "We're a very inexpensive form of insurance for the whole planet."

"So many of us use the results that come out of there that we are very concerned," said Brother Guy Consolmagno, an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo, Italy. "There is nothing that can come close to what it can do."

"With this kind of cutback, it would be difficult to sustain any kind of long-term operation," said Mike Nolan, an astronomer. "We're going to hold out as long as we can and try to convince people that it would be foolish to do that," Nolan said.

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