April 8, 2005

NSF Renews Arecibo Contract

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You may have seen it in such hit films as Goldeneye and Contact or perhaps on an episode of The X-Files, but Cornell will be in charge of it for at least another five years.

The National Science Foundation renewed the University’s contract for the Arecibo Observatory, which Cornell has been associated with since its conception, after a 15 month-long competition for management with the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) on March 30.

The NSF contract with Cornell’s National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, which manages the Puerto Rican observatory, will be for approximately $70 million.

“The University brings a lot of strengths to the management of NAIC, especially the faculty,” said Bob Brown, director of NAIC. “Faculty and students have played leading roles in developing abilities of facility over the last 30 years. That was looked upon very kindly [in the review] … Cornell benefits by the fact that they have exceptionally good students.”

Some members of the astronomy department’s faculty expressed their pride in the contract’s renewal.

“It doesn’t come as a surprise in the sense that Cornell has been the steward of Arecibo Observatory from the beginning and there’s a huge commitment from all parts of the University,” said Martha Haynes, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy and head of the NAIC oversight committee. According to Haynes, the contract’s renewal “means that the students will have the opportunity to interact with [faculty doing work at the Arecibo Observatory], to take classes from them and to participate in their activities and do research with them. Not to mention go there sometimes, especially in the wintertime.”

According to David C. Black, president and CEO of the USRA, the high number of Cornellians working at the observatory was a major reason for their entering the competition for the contract, even though Cornell is a member.

“One of the things that people cited was that around half of Ph.Ds received from work done on Arecibo are Cornell students,” Black said. “At any other national observatory, the highest you see is about nine percent from one institution.”

Black said that he felt the fact that Cornell won the contract probably indicates that the University addressed this in their proposal.

“I wish them success as they go forward and if there is any way we can assist, we would be happy to do so,” he said.

The Arecibo Observatory, which was dedicated in 1963, is the largest curved focusing antenna on Earth. According to the observatory’s website, the dish has a diameter of 305 meters and is 167 feet deep. The massive size of the telescope’s reflector makes it the world’s most sensitive radio telescope.

“Starting in 1958, I had the idea for a very powerful radar and the Aricebo Observatory is the result of that idea, and I led the design and early operation,” said Prof. Emeritus William E. Gordon Ph.D. ’53, astronomy, who initiated the project. “I lived in Puerto Rico with my family from 1960 until 1965 along with other Cornell families who were vitally concerned with the construction of the observatory … When the observatory was built, the engineers wanted to know how long we should plan on it lasting. We didn’t know and we said about 10 years. Now it’s about 45 years later and it’s better now than ever. It’s performed very well for 45 years and I don’t see why it won’t perform very well for the next 45 years.”

During the duration of its existence, it has been used for several projects ranging from discovering degenerative neutron stars called pulsars to examining the weather of the upper atmosphere.

“The [project] that is most famous is the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” said Brown. “In a more serious scientific vein, it is known for the Nobel Prize won by Princeton University scientist Joe Taylor for studies of the first binary pulsar, which demonstrated that Einstein’s theory of general relativity was correct.”

More recently, Cornell faculty and students have used the observatory for various projects.

Julia Deneva grad has been using the Arecibo Observatory to work on a survey of pulsars.

According to Deneva, who was last at the observatory over spring break, the contract renewal “gives a sense of stability to the [astronomy] department and the organization.”

Another project at the observatory that the University is currently involved with is the Arecibo Legacy Fast Arecibo L-band Feed Array (ALFALFA), which according to Haynes, is “a camera with seven pixels that uses the biggest telescope in the world. This is a new device that allows us to map the sky much faster than we could before.”

ALFALFA is scheduled to be completed in approximately five years.

Archived article by David Hillis
Sun Senior Writer