Arecibo Observatory at Risk, but Defended

Photo by Nadia Drake

If you’re a fan of James Bond films, then chances are you’ve seen the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico on a screen at some point–it was the location for the climax of Goldeneye, where Pierce Brosnan debuted as the British spy character. The largest radio telescope in the world, and for several decades managed by Cornell University, Arecibo Observatory is now threatened with defunding in the coming year, but the community around it in Puerto Rico, as Nadia Drake (whose father once directed the Observatory) reports for NatGeo and Science Friday, is rallying around it:

SAN JUAN and ARECIBO, Puerto Rico — Francisco Cordova just started his job as director of Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory, the world’s largest radio telescope. But at a public meeting on day two of his new post, he was already facing the iconic telescope’s potential demolition.

At meetings June 7 in San Juan and Arecibo, students, scientists, observatory staff and community members spoke about what would be lost in terms of science and education if the observatory were to close, an outcome that no one in attendance seemed to find acceptable in any way. As the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, Arecibo is famous for searching for distant galaxies,  gravitational waves, and signs of extraterrestrial life.

The meetings gave the community a chance to speak directly to representatives from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. science agency responsible for deciding Arecibo’s fate, and which is now facing tough choices thanks to flatlined budgets.

“It’s a concern, but I know we will find a way,” Cordova says.

Cordova, like many Puerto Ricans, visited Arecibo when he was a kid. Back then, he was struck by the facility itself, with its 900-ton platform looming above a dish stretching 1,000 feet across. “To be able to come here and help out and help lead what’s going to be the future—it’s exciting because it gives me the opportunity to make a difference,” Cordova says.

The meetings were not particularly well attended, and notably absent were many local government officials, including the Arecibo mayor—observations that prompted some to question how well NSF had publicized the meetings.

At the start of the meetings, NSF officers quickly reminded everyone that no decisions about Arecibo’s future had been made.

“We’re not here today to announce the closing of Arecibo, or the reduction of any funding whatsoever,” said Ralph Gaume, Arecibo program officer within the agency’s Astronomical Sciences Division. But, a dismal federal funding climate means NSF needs to cut funding “for a number of its astronomical and geospace science facilities,” he said.

Read the rest of the article at Phenomenon.

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