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The Question of Arecibo

The recent National Science Foundation report recommending scaling back support for the Arecibo radio telescope raises eyebrows here. Arecibo has just been instrumental in identifying the near-Earth asteroid 1999 KW4 as a binary, one that provides useful information about the mass, shape and density of its components and hence about near-Earth asteroids in general. That’s the kind of knowledge we need as we ponder how to analyze Earth-crossing objects to prevent future planetary disasters.

But while focusing on ongoing radio astronomy work, the report gives short shrift to Arecibo’s radar capabilities, which make this kind of investigation possible. In a letter to the NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences, Guy Consolmagno SJ, who is head of the Department for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society, had this to say:

There is in fact only one reference to radar in the entire 78 page document, and no mention at all of asteroids. But the Arecibo radar results are key to understanding near earth object sizes, shapes, and dynamics. Besides having a central scientific importance, both of themselves and as samples derived from the main asteroid belt, near earth asteroids may represent a significant hazard to Earth and also a potential source of future resources. To decommission one of our primary tools for studying them would deal a serious blow to both our science and our safety.

That’s troublesome news, though an article by Larry Klaes in the Ithaca Times provides a needed perspective. Cornell University has managed Arecibo since 1963, so it’s useful to know that Cornell astronomers remain optimistic about its survival. Klaes quotes astronomy professor Jim Cordes on the issue:

“Cornell has no plans to close Arecibo,” said Cordes. “In fact, the NSF has provided funds to maintain the facility in the form of $5 million to conduct a high-tech paint job on the telescope. This should go far in keeping the observatory operating for another 20 years.”

Let’s hope that optimism is well founded, as it seems to be. Arecibo’s powerful radar is vital for continuing studies of near-Earth asteroids, a point driven home by NASA’s interest in a possible manned mission to such an object. An asteroid mission would obviously provide a valuable read on these survivors from the early Solar System, while also offering a useful shakedown in a near-Earth environment for new space technologies. It’s a win/win proposition, and one that builds our database as we ponder possible strategies for avoiding catastrophic impacts.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Stephen November 21, 2006, 16:37

    The rationale for defunding Arecibo is the make funds available for new projects.

    I’m not convinced. Nowhere is a single big dish being proposed. Lots of little dishes, yes. It seems that Arecibo is a unique resource, that is not easily replaced.

    I find it interesting that Arecibo was originially built to explore the upper atmosphere.

  • ljk January 20, 2007, 23:36

    Saving Arecibo: Observatory’s radar and unique precision make it a vital resource, argues NAIC director

    Jan. 18, 2007

    By Lauren Gold

    On Nov. 3 the Senior Review, an advisory panel to the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Astronomical Sciences, issued recommendations for the future of the Arecibo Observatory, which Cornell manages for the agency through the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC). Among the recommendations was a $2 million budget cut over the next three years, and advice that the NAIC find outside partners to cover half of Arecibo’s total operating costs by 2011 or risk closure.

    Reactions from Cornell and Arecibo astronomers have run from deeply concerned to guardedly optimistic. Many acknowledge the competing need to fund promising new facilities. But above all is strong agreement about Arecibo’s unique strengths, its decades-long lifespan and the importance of keeping it running well into the future.

    Robert Brown, NAIC director and adjunct professor of astronomy at Cornell, discussed the report’s impact on the observatory in a recent interview.

    Full article here:


  • ljk January 24, 2007, 0:17


    NEO News (01/23/07) Arecibo, AAAS & NEO Characterization

    The eagerly awaited NASA response to the congressional mandate for a plan to detect and characterize NEAs down to 140 m diameter has not yet been submitted to the Congress.

    David Morrison



    There seems to be little progress in efforts to stimulate a change in the NSF plans to close down the Arecibo planetary radar. Following are comments from an exchange of letters between the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Science (DPS) and the head of the NSF astronomy program. The full text of both letters is available on the NSF web site at:


    * DPS (Guy Consolmagno) to NSF (Wayne Van Citters):

    There is in fact only one reference to radar in the entire [Senior Review] document, and no mention at all of asteroids. But the Arecibo radar results are key to understanding near earth object sizes, shapes, and dynamics. Besides having a central scientific importance, both of themselves and as samples derived from the main asteroid belt, near earth asteroids may represent a significant hazard to Earth and also a potential source of future resources. To decommission one of our primary tools for studying them would deal a serious blow to both our science and our safety. . . I strongly urge that the report be reconsidered.

    * NSF (Van Citters) to DPS (Consolmagno)

    The [Senior Review] committee was able to review, in depth, the entire portfolio of NSF [Astronomy] investment, and as a result, their perspective on the relative priorities and future use of [NSF]-supported facilities and programs was much broader and more complete [than other review committees]. . . The fact that the report may not have referred directly to the ‘unique capabilities of Arecibo in studying near earth asteroids, by radar” does not mean that the committee was unaware of this aspect of the Arecibo scientific program. . . The recommendations in the committee’s report are final and will not be revisited or revised.

  • ljk March 22, 2007, 9:19

    The Planetary Society, co-founded by Carl Sagan in 1980, is promoting a
    drive to save Arecibo from budget cuts.

    Read here:


  • ljk June 1, 2007, 14:40

    Cuts threaten world’s largest telescope

    By DANICA COTO, Associated Press Writer

    Thu May 31, 8:46 PM ET

    ARECIBO, Puerto Rico – Engineers will travel to this Puerto Rican coastal town in coming weeks to study whether to shut down the world’s largest radio telescope, which was featured in the movie “Contact” [10th anniversary of that film this July] but now faces steep budget cuts, observatory officials said Thursday.

    Full article here:


    To quote:

    Observatory officials said Thursday the impending study does not mean the complex will close entirely — at least not immediately.

    “That’s not our desire. But we are looking at this for planning purposes,” said Richard Barvainis, program manager of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, which includes the Arecibo observatory.

    Another quote:

    Officials said that regardless of what happens with the possible budget cuts, the telescope’s visitor center, which draws about 120,000 people a year, would remain open.

    Ah yes, like the just-opened Creation Museum, a monument to
    humanity’s penny-pinching and short-sightedness.

    They can say they will be building a bigger and better radio
    telescope in the future, but that is likely a decade or more away.

    What good does that do the science which only Arecibo can do in
    the meantime?

  • ljk June 27, 2007, 16:22

    Cornell and NAIC search for funding to keep Arecibo’s radar alive


    June 27, 2007

    By Melissa Rice

    The planetary radar system at the Arecibo Observatory, which Cornell manages for the National Science Foundation (NSF) through its National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC), is the most powerful in the world and is considered the best tool for tracking asteroids that may be on a collision course with the Earth.

    But since the Arecibo radar system may lose all its funding from NSF as soon as next year, Cornell astronomer Joseph Burns quips, “Let’s hope that we find all the dangerous asteroids in the next few months.”

    Last November, the Senior Review, an advisory committee to the NSF Division of Astronomical Sciences, recommended that Arecibo’s total funding from that division be scaled back by 25 percent over the next three years. These cuts only allow operation of the planetary radar to continue into 2008; if the NAIC cannot find outside partners to cover half of the observatory’s total operating costs by 2011, the telescope risks being shut down entirely.

    Many planetary scientists say that the Senior Review’s recommendations completely overlooked the radar system. No planetary scientists sat on the committee, and only one reference was made to radar in the 78-page report (and no mention of asteroids). The chair of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences and numerous other astronomers have urged NSF to reconsider the funding cuts, with radar in mind.

    “Asteroid impacts are the only known natural disaster that can cause ecological disaster and mass extinction. They can be prevented, though, and it is simply irresponsible to neglect a unique warning and mitigation device like the Arecibo radar,” said Jean-Luc Margot, Cornell assistant professor of astronomy.

    The radar system also has led to important recent discoveries in planetary science, including the detection of ice at Mercury’s poles and the discovery of binary asteroids. In the past year, Cornell astronomers and colleagues have published three articles in the prestigious journals Science and Nature based on Arecibo radar experiments, reporting the discovery of Mercury’s molten core, a lack of evidence for ice reserves on the moon and on the detection of the YORP Effect.

    Although the radar system is not expensive — its operating costs are roughly $1 million a year — it is not clear who should pick up the tab. The NSF and NASA have both supported the radar in the past, but neither agency feels responsible for saving the radar now.

    The NSF feels that solar system science is not one of its high priorities, and should be NASA’s responsibility, said Don Campbell, Cornell professor of astronomy and former associate director of the NAIC. But NASA focuses on space programs, not ground-based observatories. “Plus, they feel that it’s not their responsibility to pick up programs previously funded by the NSF,” he said.

    Robert Brown, director of the NAIC; Burns, Cornell vice provost of physical sciences and engineering; and Campbell recently met with NASA, NSF, the National Research Council and congressional staff to stress the importance of the Arecibo radar. Brown, Burns and Arecibo Observatory staff members are attending a town meeting in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, this week “to seek new partnerships to help fund and expand the observatory’s role [in Puerto Rico],” said Burns.

    If neither agency agrees to foot the bill, the Arecibo radar will start operating with reduced hours in October 2007, and will likely be inactivated after September 30, 2008.

    “It would be a tremendous loss if the Arecibo radar gets shut down,” said Campbell. “Then we’d only have the Goldstone radar system in California, which is 20 times less sensitive, and is used mainly for spacecraft telemetry. Many solar system studies would be seriously affected.”