The Arecibo Observatory and it’s Future

arecibo_observatory_aerial_view

November 2016, NSF Public Hearing, San Juan, Puerto RIco

The future of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico is again a matter of public discussion We would like to add with these short comments to that public discussion, and clarify a few
issues which have confused the public. Our long time association with the observatory allows us to make the following comments.

Although it recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, it continues to serve scientific research in several areas, and in some of them it is a unique instrument. In a 2006 headline, the journal Nature declared that Arecibo might be “no longer the dish of the day”, but then it never was! It has always been something of a gourmet dish, and definitely something very special.

In particular, its radar capabilities, are unique and allow important investigations in the areas of atmospheric science and planetary radar.

We begin by expressing our disagreement with statements that seem to imply that because it is no longer the largest single dish aperture on our planet, being surpassed by the recently inaugurated FAST telescope (Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope) in China, it has therefore become obsolete. It is still the second largest single dish in the world, mainly serving the US scientific community, and FAST is in China.

It is also not true that the SKA (Square Kilometer Array) being constructed in South Africa and in Australia, makes Arecibo obsolete. The SKA is under construction and at any rate does not and will not have certain capabilities which Arecibo does have (Radar).

In particular we wish to point out that even if all that Arecibo could do was planetary radar, this capability is well worth the relatively small budget needed to maintain the Arecibo Observatory open. It is needed to establish the precise orbit of a near earth asteroid which could represent a threat to a region of the earth in the event of an impact which, although of low probability, is not impossible. Arecibo represents a first line of defense to verify such a threat. An insurance premium of $12 million a year is a real bargain. (Total NSF budget is about $7.4 billion)

Furthermore, it is not just another telescope. It is an international scientific icon and has been designated by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) as an important historical milestone of electrical engineering. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) declared it a monument of mechanical engineering, both events happening in 2001. It was registered in the national registry of historic places by the U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service in 2008.

Closing or decommissioning have therefore implications which go beyond strictly scientific matters, since attention must also be given to section 106 of the federal code for the protection of historical sites. (www.achp.gov).

Many of our colleagues agree that closing the Observatory is a bad move. Changes in its operation will also have significant consequences beyond the issues mentioned above, including a negative effect on the already gloomy economic situation of Puerto Rico,

We think that the preferred option by the NSF, of finding partners for funding the Observatory, must be looked upon with some concern, especially if the idea is to “offer” the observatory to the local government, (likely through the University of Puerto Rico).

The alternative of transforming the observatory into an educational institution is also not a good one, and just another way to find local money for a federal facility mostly used by US scientists. The telescope in not an adjunct to the educational activities, it is exactly the opposite.

Furthermore, aside from its scientific value, the observatory has served as inspiration and training ground for many Puerto Rican students who have very limited local opportunities to do so. Some of them went on to obtain their doctoral degrees in science. If NSF wants to further the participation in STEM by minorities and women, closing or otherwise limiting the operation is again a bad idea.

Dr. Daniel R. Altschuler (Former Director of the Arecibo Observatory)
Dra. Mayra E. Lebrón (Former Research Associate of the Arecibo Observatory)
Dra. Carmen A. Pantoja (Former REU coordinator for the Arecibo Observatory)
Faculty members, University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus.

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