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.