PR scientist urges congressional hearings on future of Arecibo Observatory
By John McPhaul
Gerardo Morell, director of the NASA Space Grant on the island and a physics professor at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) Río Piedras Campus, said in a radio interview Wednesday that Congress must hold public hearings on the future of the Arecibo Observatory.
“What I am suggesting as a member of the scientific community in Puerto Rico is that we request that congressional public hearings be held on this matter,” Morell said in an interview on “Pegaos en la Mañana” on Radio Isla 1320 AM. “The decision [regarding whether or not to rebuild the Arecibo Observatory] remains in the hands of Congress and not in the hands of the National Science Foundation [NSF, the owner of the facilities].”
“The Arecibo Observatory is larger, more comprehensive, than the National Science Foundation. And in that sense it has to be an entity such as Congress that can assess all the valuable aspects of the observatory, beyond astronomy,” Morell said. “Because this has a scientific value for the international community; it also has a national security value, it has an educational value, it has a tourist value. You have to look at all aspects before making a decision and that can be done by Congress and not necessarily by the National Science Foundation.”
Early Tuesday morning, the Gregorian dome and the 900-ton receiver platform that supported it collapsed onto the 100-foot-diameter main dish after the cables that held the platform failed.
The dish was shattered when it was hit by the falling platform.
On Nov. 6 at around 7:39 p.m., a main cable failed at the observatory, causing damage to the installation’s main dish.
Unlike the auxiliary cable that failed in the same installation on Aug. 10, the main cable did not come out of its socket, but instead broke and fell onto the reflector dish below, causing additional damage to the dish and other nearby cables, as reported on Nov. 8.
On Nov. 19, the NSF announced that it was going to dismantle the 1,000-foot (305-meter) dish, since it did not consider it possible to repair it safely.
The Arecibo Observatory was established in 1963 but had been modernized and expanded on several occasions to maintain its validity as a research tool.
The observatory has been instrumental in investigating asteroids, particularly those approaching Earth. The scientific facility was widely regarded as the best research center in the world for determining the shape, size, composition, speed and path of an asteroid.