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Asteroid Watch: Saving Arecibo’s Radar

“Let’s hope that we find all the dangerous asteroids in the next few months,” says Cornell astronomer Joseph Burns. He’s talking about the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which Cornell manages for the National Science Foundation. Word is that Arecibo’s radar system may lose its NSF funding as early as 2008, leaving us without our premier tool for tracking asteroids of the Earth-crossing variety.

The Arecibo Observatory

Strictly speaking, Cornell’s Arecibo effort runs through the university’s National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC), which will need to find outside partners to pick up as much as half of the observatory’s operating costs or face the threat of total shutdown of the Arecibo telescope by 2011.

Image: Aerial view of the Arecibo Telescope, equipped with a 12.6cm, 1.0MW radar transmitter. Credit: NAIC/Cornell University.

It’s hard to understand why, in its deliberations on the matter, the NSF all but ignored the contribution of Arecibo’s radar. In fact, as this Cornell news release makes clear, not a single planetary scientist had a presence on the relevant committee, nor did the term ‘asteroid’ make an appearance in its report. The response from some astronomers has been unambiguous, as in this statement by Cornell’s Jean-Luc Margot:

“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.”

The key date appears to be September 30, 2008. Absent new funding from NASA, NSF or outside sources, that’s the day Arecibo’s radar will likely be deactivated. $1 million a year is needed to cover operating costs, a bargain in the eyes of some, who point not only to the radar’s capabilities at asteroid tracking, but also its contributions to science, including the discovery of ice at Mercury’s poles and detection of the so-called YORP (Yarkovsky-O’Keefe-Radzievskii-Paddack) effect, which can change the rotation rate of an asteroid.

Do we give up on Arecibo? The Goldstone radar system in California is twenty times less sensitive, not an adequate fallback for planetary science or asteroid tracking. Perhaps NSF will reconsider, heeding the urgings of the chair of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences and other astronomers. But this is a classic case for alternate sources, and we’ll watch any attempts to fund Arecibo through the private sector with great interest.

Related: In a request for a Congressional hearing on near-Earth objects (NEOs), Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) notes NASA’s March 2007 report “Near Earth Object Survey and Deflection Analysis of Alternatives.” NASA predicts 20,000 objects with the potential energy of 100 megatons of TNT or more that can be considered dangerous to Earth. The Spaceguard program currently aims to detect 90 percent of NEOs with a 75,000 megaton potential. If successful, this program would probably find only 35 percent of the 100 megaton objects. A 100 megaton collision, says Rohrabacher, is predicted to cause a minimum of 50,000 fatalities.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • djlactin June 28, 2007, 9:18

    I know that I have made some negative comments before, but this move fills me with dread. Why decommission a facility that already contributes data to science? Replacing Arecibo would cost millions!

    Also, I participate in SETI@home, and all of the signals that “I” have analyzed come from Arecibo. Who knows, maybe this project will be the first to detect ETI. Surely someone important can be made to understand that a bird in hand is worth 2 in the bush!

    Write! Give me an address and I will!

  • Administrator June 28, 2007, 10:43

    djlactin, let me see if I can find the best office to contact at NSF re Arecibo funding; I think they would be the organization to contact. I’ll hope to have something up on this later today.

  • Administrator June 28, 2007, 18:49

    Still trying to find the address for the appropriate NSF office for comments re Arecibo. If anyone else has it, please post! I have a query in with the powers that be.

  • Administrator July 4, 2007, 14:07

    Re Arecibo, I now have an address at NSF where comments re funding can be sent. It’s astsenior-review@nsf.gov. If you agree that keeping Arecibo’s work alive is a worthwhile goal, please weigh in!

  • ljk September 10, 2007, 13:41

    Will the US let Arecibo decline and die over a few bucks?


    To quote:

    Cause of death will be politics

    The squeeze is part of a larger effort to free up money for new ventures in astronomy — projects that even Arecibo’s depressed staff agrees ought to be launched. But many astronomers say that if Arecibo succumbs, the cause of death will be politics, not a lack of good science.

    They note that states with major observatories, such as New Mexico and West Virginia, have senators famous for their power over purse strings, some of whom are already gearing up to fight proposed cuts. By contrast, Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, has no senators. And its representative in the House, Resident Commissioner Luis G. Fortu?o (R), does not have a vote.

    “That makes a big difference,” Fortu?o said, adding that recent pleas by the observatory’s director for financial help from Puerto Rico’s government struck him as paradoxical, given the island’s budget woes. Last summer, the government shut down temporarily for lack of funds. The average income in Puerto Rico is half that in the poorest American state.

    Astronomers from around the country are meeting in Washington this week to highlight the many scientific mysteries that Arecibo is in a unique position to plumb, but the effort may be “too little, too late,” said Daniel Altschuler, a professor of physics at the University of Puerto Rico who was Arecibo’s director for 12 years.

    “I don’t see any effective move toward saving Arecibo,” said Altschuler, who calls the observatory “a monument to man’s curiosity.”

    “But to let it die is just a tragedy,” he said.

  • ljk October 3, 2007, 22:53

    Chronicle Online e-News

    Congress gets bill to save Arecibo Observatory


    Oct. 3, 2007

    By Lauren Gold

    Congressmen Luis Fortuño of Puerto Rico and Dana Rohrabacher of California have introduced legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to ensure continued operation of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. They want to guarantee future federal funding for the astronomical and radar-imaging facility.

    “The bill is an appeal for the NSF [National Science Foundation] and NASA to get together and talk about how they might jointly work to maintain the science program at Arecibo,” said Robert Brown, director of Cornell’s National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, which manages the facility for the NSF. Brown, also an adjunct professor of astronomy at Cornell, said: “It doesn’t ask for something new; rather, it seeks to maintain what goes on at the moment. The observatory is really an icon to the people of Puerto Rico — it allows young people see … that Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans can be successful scientifically on a world stage.”

    The observatory is facing severe federal budget cuts by 2011 as the result of an NSF Senior Review panel recommendation last year. The observatory has reduced its operating budget from $10 million to $8 million since last year, and funding will remain level over the next three years.

    Fortuño and others in Congress have also written to the NSF seeking reconsideration of the recommended budget cuts. Fortuño noted that the radio astronomy and radar capabilities of the facility are critical to detection and tracking of near-Earth objects (NEOs), including asteroids that could pose a hazard of catastrophic destruction and loss of life.

    The legislation introduced by Fortuño and Rohrabacher would mandate the continued operation of the facility and would support the mission of NASA with respect to NEOs, as well as research for scientific and educational purposes important to Puerto Rico and the rest of the nation.

    Fortuño said: “Nobel Prize-winning research has been conducted at Arecibo in the past and may be again in the future, unless the observatory is closed for short-sighted reasons. Maintaining this facility is an investment in our nation’s future. The cost is small compared to the benefits for America and mankind.”

    Said Rohrabacher: “Arecibo is a key resource in understanding the characteristics of potentially hazardous asteroids and comets so that they can be dealt with effectively. There is no room for error when it comes to eliminating a threat that could kill millions.”

  • ljk October 4, 2007, 16:41


    The following Dear Colleague letter from Wayne Van Citters, Director of the Division for Astronomical Sciences of the National Science Foundation, is available at http://www.nsf.gov/publications/pub_summ.jsp?ods_key=nsf07052. Following are the specific comments relative to the future of Arecibo.

    Title: Providing Progress Update on Senior Review Recommendations

    Date: 9/20/07

    Our FY 2007 appropriation and FY 2008 Budget Request are very good news, providing healthy increases to the Division’s budget. Your research accomplishments speak eloquently to the enduring opportunities in astronomy on an almost daily basis and continue to fascinate the general public. However, the bottom line remains that even under the most optimistic budget projection, and all historical experience tells us that we should be more cautious, the premise of the Senior Review remains valid and we will need to find savings from existing programs to build for the future. As a result, we have proceeded to act on each of the recommendations, while gathering the necessary additional information that will inform our later decisions.

    Let me describe for each facility, the actions that we and the managing organizations have taken, the budget implications and the immediate plans for the future.

    National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC)/Arecibo – Cornell acted quickly to implement the first of the Senior Review’s recommendations to reduce the base operating budget to $8M over the next three years, by modifying the operating mode for astronomy observations, increasing the fraction of time for survey work, and limiting the number of receivers supported and the number of hours for astronomy observations. They also eliminated 30 FTEs, or 25% of their staff. Not all of these savings are realizable immediately, since personnel termination costs must be covered and the observatory requires basic maintenance to ensure safety of operations. By FY 2010, the full $2.5 million savings identified by the Senior Review will be recovered into the AST base budget and available for other uses.

    Cornell has said that it will cease operations of the planetary radar in October 2007 to meet these budget reductions. We have recently learned that, in fact, they are maintaining the capability to operate the planetary radar, although on a less frequent schedule. In conversations with NASA management, it has been made clear that NASA has no intention of resuming support of the planetary radar, which they terminated in FY 2006.

    With NSF’s encouragement and support, Cornell and Arecibo staff are actively pursuing partnerships with the Puerto Rican government, local businesses, and academic institutions to provide additional operations support by 2011. We recently visited Puerto Rico, held a town hall for the Arecibo community, and met with commonwealth officials, business leaders, representatives from the universities and concerned citizens. We clarified the Senior Review recommendations and NSF’s role in supporting the observatory and helped foster discussions among the many parties interested in maintaining the observatory as a viable operating facility for scientific research, education, and public outreach. The meetings were very positive with many expressions of a desire to work together to identify creative solutions to obtaining additional support. Many challenges face Cornell in preparing a plan for sustained long-term support from non-AST sources. I am optimistic that such a plan can be put together. NSF has informed Cornell that a concrete plan for operations in 2011 and beyond must be in place by spring of 2009. It is at that point that NSF must set the FY 2011 budget and so make a decision about the long-term future of Arecibo.

    Nonetheless, in order to plan responsibly, and weigh the various options, we have to understand the cost of closure to be weighed against other options. As recommended by the Senior Review, NSF is also engaging an engineering firm to carry out a study of the cost of decommissioning the observatory facility. The study will explore a variety of possible endpoints, ranging from complete deconstruction and restoration of the site to its natural state to securely ‘mothballing’ the facility. The results of this study will be available in December 2007 and will serve as critical input to our planning for the long-term future of the observatory. This is part of responsible lifecycle costing, and should not be regarded as indicating that any final decisions have been made.