UMET to take role in running Arecibo Observatory as facility changes hands
The federal facility has been run for decades under a long-term contract with New York’s Cornell University.
However, the National Science Foundation (NSF), which owns the Arecibo Observatory, put its operation up for bid amid an ongoing budget crunch surrounding the facility.
That bid was won by a consortium including SRI International, Universities Space Research Association (USRA), and other institutions, Don Kniffen, vice-president for science at USRA, told Nature.com.
It was originally reported that the University of Puerto Rico is part of the consortium. However, it is UMET that is taking part.
UMET, in the Cupey area of San Juan, is part of the private Ana G. Méndez University System (SUAGM for its Spanish initials). SUAGM has three colleges in Puerto Rico — UMET, Turabo University and Universidad del Este — and three campuses in Florida.
UMET officials were meeting on the matter Friday morning and were expected to provide details on its participation later in the day.
The National Atmospheric & Ionospheric Center (NAIC), which includes the Arecibo Observatory, will move from Cornell to the consortium.
The shakeup at the Arecibo Observatory was first reported on the Nature.com website, which said the NSF has asked consortium members not to go public with the move pending the establishment of a transition process scheduled to start June 1. The NSF call for bids says the management team that submitted the winning proposal will be in place at the start of the new federal fiscal year Oct. 1.
The observatory’s association with Cornell University dates back to its founding. It was designed in the early 1960s by Bill Gordon, a Cornell University engineer who managed it for a time after its opening in 1963. Gordon died in 2010.
Kniffen said that the budget for staff was lower in the consortium’s bid than in Cornell’s.
With the onset of the new management contract, the NSF will decertify the NAIC as a federally funded research & development center (FFRDC).
“Decertification of NAIC as a FFRDC reflects a change only to the federal administrative regulations applicable to NAIC and does not imply any change in NAIC’s continuing status as a center of excellence for multidisciplinary scientific research,” the NSF said in its call for bids.
The agency said the decertification actually opens the NAIC to additional outside collaboration.
Funding concerns have shadowed the Arecibo Observatory in recent years as the NSF has taken steps toward its eventual decommissioning. The scientific community and Puerto Rico government officials have lobbied strongly against that scenario.
Planetary scientists argue that the dish is unmatched in mapping near-Earth asteroids. Island officials stress its research value and its role as an economic development engine and tourism attraction.
NSF funding for the NAIC was $10.7 million in fiscal year 2010 and has been lowered to $8.2 million for the years 2012 through 2016. NASA has pledged to pitch in another $2 million per year.
The consortium reportedly does not foresee layoffs at the Arecibo Observatory despite its lower staff budget.
“We have no plans to lay anybody off but we costed it with a few less staff,” Kniffen told Nature.com, adding that the consortium hopes to retain as many of the incumbent staff as possible aside from some natural attrition.
“We very much want to continue and expand on the wonderful science Arecibo has done,” he said.
With the largest radio-telescope in the world, the Arecibo Observatory is involved in a world-renowned effort to find signs of alien life. Scientists working there have made the first discovery of planets outside our solar system, created the first three-dimensional map of the distribution of galaxies in the universe and undertook a Nobel Prize-winning effort to find the first known binary pulsar.
Some 250 scientists carry out investigations there annually, and a number of students undertake important work there to earn advanced degrees. The observatory doubles as a popular tourism attraction drawing an estimated 100,000 people every year, including 25,000 students. It pumps about $50 million annually into the local economy.
Within a year of opening, it was used to determine the planet Mercury’s period of rotation. After radio pulsars — rotating neutron stars — were discovered in 1967, the observatory played a prominent role in studying their properties.
The astronomers Joseph Taylor and Russell Hulse discovered the first binary pulsar at Arecibo in 1974, leading to a 1993 Nobel Prize in physics.
In 1990, Polish astronomer Aleksander Wolszczan used the telescope in the discovery of a pulsar in the constellation Virgo that was shown to be orbited by the first known planets beyond Earth’s solar system.
The telescope had a prominent role in the 1997 Jodie Foster film “Contact,” based on a Carl Sagan book about the search for extraterrestrial life — a hunt that still continues at the observatory. In the 1995 James Bond movie “GoldenEye,” the telescope’s platform figured in the climactic fight scene.
“When we were talking about building (the telescope) back in the late ‘50s, we were told by eminent authorities it couldn’t be done,” Gordon said at Arecibo’s 40th Anniversary in 2003. “We were in the position of trying to do something that was impossible, and it took a lot of guts and we were young enough that we didn’t know we couldn’t do it.”
These days, the telescope’s work includes searching for asteroids and comets headed for Earth. It also discovered lakes of hydrocarbons on Saturn’s moon Titan.
Sometime in the not-too-distant future, Puerto Rico will lose its decades-long standing as home to the world’s largest radio telescope.
The Arecibo Observatory has held the title since it opened in 1964. The 305-meter wide (1,000 feet ) parabolic dish draws tens of thousands of visitors annually and has racked up a series of important scientific discoveries over the decades.
But halfway around the world there’s a bigger competitor on the horizon.
The storied Arecibo facility will finally be surpassed, in size at least, by a similarly designed radio telescope being built in the Guizhou province of China.
China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) is expected to come online in 2014, a half-century after Arecibo first opened its ears to the universe.
FAST’s dish, at 1,640 feet in diameter, will be more than 50 percent larger than Arecibo and will offer radio astronomers a deeper, wider window on the most distant objects in the cosmos.
Besides its size, FAST has another advantage over Arecibo: flexibility. While Arecibo’s dish is immovable, the 4,600 panels that make up FAST’s dish can be adjusted to vary the dish’s shape from spherical through parabolic, thus allowing the telescope to focus on a much greater area of the sky.
Still, the Arecibo Observatory will keep the size crown for several years and remain a thriving center for scientific investigation. The dish, which sits sunken in a limestone depression in the mountains of Arecibo, will likely not see its track record of important discoveries eclipsed quickly by FAST.