Tucked into a sinkhole in the Puerto Rican jungle, the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope scans the skies for signs of distant galaxies, elusive gravitational waves, and the murmurs of extraterrestrial civilizations nearly 24 hours a day. For more than a half-century, whether those waves traveled to Earth from the far reaches of our universe or much closer to home, the Arecibo Observatory has been there to catch them.
But the enormous telescope, with a dish that stretches 1,000 feet across, may not be around for much longer.
On May 23, the National Science Foundation, which funds the majority of Arecibo’s annual $12 million budget, published a notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement related to the observatory’s future.
That might sound innocuous – after all, isn’t it a good idea to study the context in which our science facilities exist? Yet it’s anything but benign. Putting that environmental assessment together is a crucial step NSF needs to take if it plans to yank funding from the observatory and effectively shut it down.
I spend the better part of 2011 working in America’s own little Caribbean paradise, and had the pleasure of visiting Aricebo myself. It’s an amazing site; a 1,000 foot dish, sunk into the rain forest, with a 900-ton gantry overhead forming most of the sensory apparatus. The country around it is beautiful, too.
But it’s likely that Aricebo may have seen better days. Orbital observatories can do the work much more effectively.
So, here’s an idea: Why not make Aricebo into a national historic site? It certainly is that. Aricebo is the largest Earthbound single-dish radio telescope ever made. Charge admission for tourists (already being done) and an Aricebo monument may even be self-supporting. Contract management out to a local company, and it would even provide some jobs and (hopefully) return a profit to some private enterprise.
Seems like a win-win to me.