• The Star Staff

National Science Foundation: Arecibo Observatory not closing

By John McPhaul


The National Science Foundation (NSF) says the Arecibo Observatory is not closing and that it seeks to work with Congress to find funding to restore the iconic radio telescope, according to the website Space.com.

“The observatory is not closing, the NSF has emphasized. Research using archived data from the massive radio dish telescope, for example, will continue,” Space.com reported earlier this week. “NSF said it is also looking for ways to restore operations with the observatory’s other instruments as soon as possible, including the 12-meter telescope and LIDAR [light detection and ranging] atmospheric-sensing facilities.”

Congress has requested a report investigating the December collapse of the telescope at Arecibo Observatory by late February as the government evaluates what comes next for the facility, the website reported Tuesday.

“The request comes as the observatory’s supporters continue to rally on the facility’s behalf, including a successful public petition calling for White House support of rebuilding at the site and a decision by the island’s governor to allocate $8 million to the effort,” Space.com said.

“Puerto Rican students and other activists have focused on formal petitions to the White House. The White House promises to respond within 60 days to petitions that garner 100,000 signatures within 30 days, a threshold that ‘Rebuild the Arecibo Observatory’ has cleared. (A former campaign called “Save the Arecibo Observatory” relaunched after the Dec. 1 catastrophe).”

The signers of the petition are asking Congress “to allocate funding to build a new Arecibo radio telescope with greater capabilities than the previous telescope.”

“Whether Congress will take up the suggestion remains to be seen, but Arecibo did appear in the fiscal year 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act, released by Congress on Dec. 21, which includes the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill that funds the NSF,” Space.com said. “The act instructs the NSF to update Congress about Arecibo Observatory within 60 days.”

A cable of the Arecibo Observatory’s 1,000-foot-diameter (305 meters) radio telescope came out of its base in August and the telescope sustained a catastrophic structural failure on Dec. 1 when its 900-ton suspended instrument panel fell onto the dish itself.

“What comes next for the site will take even longer to determine. Unrelated to the NSF, on Dec. 28, Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez ordered that $8 million go toward reconstructing Arecibo. But such a small sum couldn’t build a new radio telescope by itself,” Space.com said. “The territory’s budgetary decision would likely need to be augmented by federal funding, which would presumably be tied to the NSF’s oversight of ground-based observatories. NSF needs more time to make a decision on what to do with the site, the agency emphasized.”

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