January 26, 2010

New Report Defends Cornell’s Giant Arecibo Telescope As Funding Cuts Loom

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The future looks suddenly bright for Arecibo, the world’s largest single-dish telescope. Brutal funding cuts in the last few years threatened to eliminate the Cornell-operated observatory completely. But a new report filled with glowing praise raises hopes that Arecibo will continue to focus on the skies.

The report by the National Research Council, “Defending Planet Earth: Near-Earth Object Surveys and Hazard Mitigation Strategies,” supported the telescope’s vital role in detecting near-earth objects. Two-thirds of NEO measurements taken in the last decade came from Arecibo, according to the report.

Since Arecibo’s radar transmitter provides such detailed images of NEOs, scientists can save the cost of using spacecrafts for the same purpose.

“We don’t have to send spacecraft all the way there,” Campbell stated. “We can measure [an object’s] distance and speed and that allows us to predict its orbit.”

While these objects do not present immediate threats, they could potentially cause unimaginable catastrophes in the future. Measuring an object’s orbit allows scientists to predict whether the object will collide with the Earth “10s or 2000s of years into the future,” Campbell explained.

In November 2006, the National Science Foundation recommended drastically cutting Arecibo’s budget. Its report, “From the Ground Up: Balancing the NSF Astronomy Program,” claimed that Arecibo did not deserve long-term financial assistance.

“The case for long term support [is] not as strong as that for other facilities,” the organization’s Senior Review Committee wrote in the report. “Much of the survey work will be completed by 2010 when the current NAIC contract expires and the proposed extensions to higher Galactic latitude do not seem as likely as the current surveys to have a large scientific impact.” The panel concluded that NAIC should either close Arecibo or “operate it with a much smaller AST budget.”

In 2008, Arecibo signed a partnership agreement with the Puerto Rico Department of Education. Although the plan would provide the observatory with $2.3 million annually, the money would go towards education rather than research.

“The money will provide for a bus to the schools to pick the children up, bring them to the observatory, tour the visitor center, get an overview of the observatory, provide lunch, and get them back to school,” said Robert Brown, then-director of the NAIC, in a previous Sun article.

Yet Arecibo’s financial troubles continued to pile up. In 2009, the NSF cut the observatory’s budget by about $850,000, according to a previous Sun article. The foundation intended to continue cutting funds and projected a drastic cut in 2011 that would likely force the observatory to close. But the new report, prepared by a committee appointed by the National Research Council, may reverse this trend.

Scientists connected with Arecibo have welcomed the committee’s decision.

“Their funding for the telescope was under considerable pressure,” Campbell stated. “We’re very pleased with the very strong support.”

Original Author: Elisabeth Rosen