Sunday, October 23, 2022

Arecibo Observatory: It's Future

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Nature of Science, History of Science, Astronomy, Cosmology, Astrophysics

Ed Hessler

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has made a final decision not to rebuild Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico. You may recall that the main reflector dish, which was constructed in a natural sinkhole, partially collapsed two years ago.

Nature News has a short report on the decision with a photograph of the badly damaged dish.  It appears collapsed to me but under the photograph "partially collapsed'' is used while the reporting uses "collapsed."

The report by Alexandra Witze who said that the NSF "has announced that it will establish an educational center for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at the site. The revised plan might wind down or drastically alter the remaining research being done at Arecibo." The focus will be on education but what the nature of that education will be is to be decided.

A recent call for proposals asked for "ideas on setting up and running an educational center at Arecibo, at a cost between US $1 million and $3 million a year for five years, starting in 2023. That money might or might not include the funds needed to operate the research facilities at Arecibo that are still in use, such as a 12-metre radio antenna and a lidar system that uses lasers to study Earth’s atmosphere."

The NSF request is for a re-imagining of this facility, necessary, if in the development of a "world-class educational facility," a comparable group of scientists, engineers, and equipment to do research is necessary. And then what should the emphasis be? No discipline focus is ruled out, e.g., it could be in the life sciences. I know little about scientific budgets but the budget the NSF aims for strikes me as small when the aim is "world class" unless this is being treated like a start-up.

Arecibo is well known for its important scientific contributions and Witze points out several examples. "The 305-metre-wide (330 yards) radio telescope that collapsed in 2020 had a key role in many scientific fields for more than half a century, including the search for extra-terrestrial life, the discovery of the first exoplanets and of gravitational waves, and the study of near-Earth asteroids and of fast radio bursts."

Witze includes a link to the forensic investigation on the causes of the collapse which included the design of the cable system supporting the massive dish, earthquake and hurricane damage, and the one that most struck me, "deferred maintenance." Infrastructure, again.

I was interested to learn that "research has continued at the observatory’s smaller facilities" which will be allowed to be completed. The NSF noted that scientists can ask to continue their use under the scope of the proposed educational center.

And Arecibo Observatory will be renamed becoming instead the Arecibo Center for STEM Education and Research.

Please read the report which includes more information about that nebulous future and research done at Arecibo Observatory.


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