El Nuevo Día

San Juan, Puerto Rico
December 2, 2006

To the Rescue of the Arecibo Observatory

Difficult times ahead of the Arecibo Observatory. Its budget will be reduced by $8 millions and its future is in jeopardy unless new funding sources can be identified

We now know that the rotation of Mercury is 59 days, and not what was believed to be 88 days, thanks to the Observatory. The facility provided the first image of an asteroid, and revealed the presence of the first extra solar planets. In addition, it is where other important planetary explorations that will help us understand the universe, like the search for extraterrestrial intelligence are carried.

This important scientific contribution could come to an end in 2011, as the closing of this facility, operated by Cornell University in New York under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (NSF), has been proposed by a review panel. This panel was charged to redistribute $30 million from the astronomy division at the NSF, under the assumption that the NSF budget will not increase in the next five years.

The NSF has warned that the only way to prevent closing the Observatory in five years is for the facility to identify new funding sources to keep it in operation.

The local scientific community, the private sector, the institutions of higher learning, and the government, are urged to unify efforts with NSF in the process of identifying new funding sources that will guarantee the operation of the Observatory. These new alliances and collaborations that are needed desperately could come from private or public institutions in Puerto Rico that are willing to preserve this unique facility. The resident commissioner, Luis Fortuño, must include the search for Observatory funds as part of his working plan in Washington.

The 305 meter antenna in the Observatory, the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world, attracts over 250 scientists from throughout the world to the northwestern part of the Island, to conduct research on the natural emissions of radio waves from planets and other astronomical objects.

The Observatory is not only a vital instrument for a wide range of astronomical investigations, it is also one of the island's main tourist attractions that brings 100,000 visitors every year.

There are some that will argue that with a weak economy and diminishing state budget, they can not adopt another fiscal burden. But, does paying millions to cover ex-governors associated expenses that do not contribute to the wellbeing of the island have more value than promoting scientific research?

This year the Observatory management has been forced to develop a budget reduction plan and a revision of its priorities due to a drastic reduction of $2.5 million in a $14 million budget.

This reorganization has led to a reduction in Observatory activities and layoff of an undetermined number of its 124 employees. This is a very painful situation for a facility that has provided so much exposition to Puerto Rico.

The Arecibo Observatory has been an icon for the scientific community in the world and it has been one of the main tourist attractions on the island since its inauguration in 1963. To remain with arms crossed, and allow for its operation to be slowly diminished for lack of funds, is equivalent of ratifying its death sentence.

Translated by José Alonso
Web format by E. Momjian