Astronomy at Arecibo may soon be off the radar

Posted by Anonymous
on Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Pulsars, quasars, radio galaxies — these are all astronomical objects we know about thanks to radio astronomy. Giant dishes, like the 305-meter (1,000 feet) Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico, are necessary to gather faint and invisible radio-frequency whispers from the cosmos. Arecibo, completed in 1963, remains the largest and most powerful radio telescope in the world.

Radio-astronomy facilities like Arecibo have also made important contributions to the study of asteroids. In a recent and notable example, astronomers used Arecibo and other radio scopes to confirm that miniscule nudges by photons of light can speed up or slow down asteroids' spin rates.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has proposed to scale back Arecibo's science operations and, perhaps, decommission the facility altogether. In a nutshell, Arecibo could fall prey to a Robin Hood-like redistribution of NSF wealth from existing astronomical facilities to new ones. The NSF proposes to cut Arecibo's $10.5 million budget to less than $8 million by 2011. If the observatory does not secure outside funding for continued operations, it would be closed.

The funding cut will immediately end radar tracking studies of asteroids (Arecibo is the only instrument of its kind sensitive enough to accomplish this task). In a larger sense, the NSF budget reallocation would effectively pull the plug on a national monument to "big science." After decades of hosting investigators from all over the world, what a profound radio silence would descend on the jungle.

The Planetary Society is lobbying to save Arecibo from the budget axe. Go here to lend a hand.

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