National Science Foundation will continue supporting Arecibo telescope

Reduced funding levels mean observatory will need one or more partners to fund and run the facility.
By Laurel Kornfeld | Nov 20, 2017
The National Science Foundation (NSF) will continue to fund the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which was damaged by Hurricane Maria in September though at a significantly reduced level, according to an announcement on Thursday, November 16.

Located in a hilly region of western Puerto Rico, the 54-year-old observatory hosts the world's largest single-dish radio telescope. Scientists use it for a variety of studies, including radar observations of Earth's atmosphere, asteroids and planets, and radio astronomy in deep space.

Within the last decade, Arecibo has had to compete with other, newer observatories constructed around the world, leading to calls for the NSF to reduce its funding and instead use the money for newer facilities.

In 2016, a year before Hurricane Maria, the NSF conducted an environmental study of Arecibo and of West Virginia's Green Bank telescope to determine whether both facilities should continue receiving long-term funding.

With the study now completed, an announcement on Arecibo's future was planned for September, which is just when Hurricane Maria hit.

In the storm's wake, that announcement was postponed to give scientists time to assess damages to the observatory.

While the damages were found to be minimal, repairs will still cost between $4 million and $8 million, NSF reported.

One or more potential partners for both managing and funding the telescope are being sought by the agency, which hopes to sign a five-year-contract with the partner(s).

During that five-year period, which starts in March 2018, NSF funding will be reduced from an annual $7 million to $2 million. Whoever partners with the agency on maintaining the observatory will have to seek new funding sources.

NSF intends "to collaborate with interested parties to maintain science-focused operations at the Observatory with reduced agency funding," according to a public statement released by the agency.

According to Jim Ulvestad, acting assistant director at NSF's Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate in Alexandria, Virginia, one or more potential partners have responded to the agency's request for proposals and will begin negotiations before NSF's contract with SRI International to maintain the telescope expires in March 2018.

Potential partners could include Breakthrough Listen, a project by billionaire Yuri Milner searching for signals of intelligent extraterrestrial life, and NANOGrav, a program that is attempting to detect gravitational waves through monitoring the timing of pulsars.

"Having the ability to keep this facility open is a win for everybody," Ulvestad said.

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