NAIC's Observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico

What Is It?

The Arecibo Observatory-- at nearly 1000' across--is the world's largest radio and radar telescope. Located in northwestern Puerto Rico, the original facility was built 40+ years ago, but it underwent major upgrades in the 1970s and in 1997-99. Most recently, a detector installed in April 2005 increased its data collection rate seven-fold. The telescope's great sensitivity enables forefront research in astronomy, planetary studies, and ionospheric/atmospheric sciences. The Observatory is part of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC) and is operated by Cornell under a cooperative agreement with the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). Annually 200 scientists, along with 50 undergraduate and graduate students, use the telescope. The observatory operates with a staff of about 125 and a yearly budget of about $12M, 5/6ths of which comes from NSF-astronomy and most of the remainder from NSF-atmospheres.

Among past achievements, Arecibo discovered and monitored a binary pulsar (for which a Nobel Prize was awarded), found the first extrasolar planets and elucidated the 3-D structure of the visible universe (leading to a Draper Medal). Currently a radio survey ALFA is being carried out to discover numerous pulsars and to clarify the nature of the dark universe. Arecibo's radar has made fundamental discoveries about the inner solar system, and is by far the most capable telescope worldwide for imaging, characterizing and determining the precise orbits for asteroids that potentially threaten Earth. In the atmospheric sciences, Arecibo is acknowledged as America's best ionospheric laboratory.

What Is the Current Situation?

On Nov. 3, an advisory panel, the Senior Review, recommended to the NSF astronomy division that Arecibo's $10.5 million annual budget be cut to $8 million over the next three years; this reduction is leading the astronomy program to focus on the survey primarily and eliminate any radar capability. The panel further states that Arecibo should be closed entirely in 2011 if $4 million in annual outside funding cannot be identified. The panel had been appointed to locate $30 million in savings (about 25% of the entire budget of NSF's five national observatories) that could be redirected to develop cutting-edge instruments and telescopes. This target was set two years ago and was predicated on the premise that NSF's budget would be flat for the next five years, which fortunately has not occurred so far.

What Is Cornell's Response?

Cornell supports the NSF's overall goal to find funds to carry out new initiatives. Indeed we have started to reduce Arecibo's annual astronomy budget to $8M. Nonetheless, we remain dedicated to the core scientific programs of the Arecibo Observatory and we are confident that the telescope has the potential for important discoveries well into the next decade. Hence we believe that the recommendation for closure is premature and perhaps ill-founded.

What Other Points Should Be Considered?