Arecibo Observatory, Home To World’s Second-Largest Radio Telescope, Will Remain Functional But With Lower Funding

The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced on Wednesday, Nov. 15, their decision to allow the Arecibo Observatory to remain operational with a reduced funding from the decision-making body.

Science-Focused Operations

According to the announcement, the decision is a thrust toward the NSF's goal of partnering with interested stakeholders to help in maintaining science-focused operations of the radio telescope despite the budgetary constraints of the agency.

"NSF remains deeply concerned about the impacts from recent hurricanes on Arecibo Observatory staff, the facility, and all citizens of Puerto Rico" NSF said in a statement. "The Record of Decision arrives at a challenging time, but is necessary for the agency to secure a future for the Observatory, as it will allow negotiations to begin with potential collaborators who may take over management and operations as NSF funding is reduced."

The NSF conducted a study on the environmental impact of Arecibo to help them decide on the future operations of the facility. During the study, the agency also solicited for possible funding partners. While the environmental study concluded early this year, announcement was put on hold after the Hurricane Maria damaged the observatory. While the damage to the observatory was minimal, the agency expects to shell out a minimum of $4 million for its repair.

James Ulvestad, acting assistant director for NSF's Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate in Alexandria, Virginia, confirmed that Arecibo will remain functional only because there were viable partners who responded to the agency's solicitation. Once negotiations are final, NSF's financial contribution to Arecibo will decrease to only $2 million annually.

"We have worked very hard to help bring Arecibo to a state where we still have cutting-edge research there, but with NSF not having to make the same investment that we've made historically," said Ulvestad.

Arecibo's Scientific Discoveries

The 54-year-old radio telescope was built in a sinkhole in western Puerto Rico. Regarded as the world's second-largest radio telescope, Arecibo radio telescope has several important contributions to science since its construction in the 1960s. Last year, the radio telescope provided a detailed analysis of the rarely occurring repeated fast radio bursts (FRBs).

It was also the first to send a targeted message to the stars, gave the first indirect evidence for cosmic ripples, and discerned the first planets to orbit a star. To date, Arecibo remains an important radio telescope in detecting gravitational waves via pulsar stars.

"It remains the most sensitive telescope in the world for pulsar timing and provides a critical resource for training students throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico," said Maura McLaughlin, chair of the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves.

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