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Collapsed Arecibo telescope to be replaced by school

Space scientists lament loss, say it won't be the same without actual working instruments

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) has decided not to rebuild Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory, shut down in August 2020 due to damage accrued three years earlier.

In its place, the NSF has solicited bids to create "a new multidisciplinary, world-class educational center" for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

The Arecibo Center for STEM Education and Research (ACSER), as center is being called, "would serve as a hub for STEM discovery and exploration by building upon existing programs and opportunities currently in place at the Arecibo Observatory site, while also creating and implementing new STEM education, research, and outreach programs and initiatives," the solicitation says.

The Arecibo Observatory was completed in 1963. At 305 metres (1,000 feet), its main instrument, the Arecibo radio telescope, was the largest single-aperture telescope until 2016 when it was surpassed by China's Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST, or Tianyan). The observatory has played a role in numerous significant scientific discoveries, including the finding of the first binary pulsar.

Damaged in Hurricane Maria in 2017, Arecibo continued to operate until 2020 when a heavy cable fell and damaged the main telescope dish. Efforts to save the telescope failed and in November 2020, a decision was made to demolish the damaged structure.

"The scientific community has expressed broad support for an expanded educational facility," said the NSF in a statement.

Dr John Barentine, an astronomer and principal consultant of Dark Sky Consulting, told The Register in an email that while he's not a radio astronomer, he considers the loss of Arecibo as a significant blow to the global astronomical research enterprise.

"Although there are other facilities like it, such as FAST in China, Arecibo was a thoroughly characterized telescope that not only collected data for significant astronomy and upper-atmosphere research, but was also an important testbed for new technology over its history," he said.

Barentine sees the telescope as a cautionary tale for the US management of scientific research facilities over time. "While the spectacular collapse of its instrument platform in December 2020 was dramatic, the telescope’s end was slow rolling over many years as federal support for the observatory was gradually withdrawn," he said.

"And it’s not the first time: the original Green Bank Telescope at the NRAO facility in West Virginia collapsed without warning in 1988."

While the spectacular collapse of its instrument platform in December 2020 was dramatic, the telescope’s end was slow rolling over many years

Private financing, said Barentine, did not prove to be sufficient to maintain Arecibo as it aged and its requirements increased. And this is something, he argues, that governments should consider.

"A number of other radio, optical and infrared telescopes in the suite of federally funded facilities are of similar age and the costs of their upkeep rise over time," he said.

"This has to be balanced against their perceived scientific productivity; see, for example, the recent retirement of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) long before the end of its 20-year primary mission. Science budgets aren’t exactly rising by leaps and bounds, so difficult decisions have to be made."

Dr Tracy Becker, group leader of research and development in the space science and engineering division of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), would have preferred another outcome.

In a phone interview, she told The Register that the decision not to rebuild will have some significant implications in all the areas of science that the Arecibo Observatory conducted, specifically astronomy, planetary science, and space and atmospheric observation.

"It's an unfortunate development because a lot of the instruments at the Arecibo Observatory are still functioning, even though the 305-meter dish was obviously in bad shape following the collapse," said Becker.

"There are LIDAR facilities. There is a 12-meter telescope that is currently operating and doing really unique observations of the sun and following space weathering."

A lot of the instruments at the Arecibo Observatory are still functioning

Becker said while the Arecibo radio telescope was surpassed in size by China's FAST, it was still the most powerful radar system in the world for planetary science. "I think it's a huge loss for all three areas of science," she said. "There were a lot of things that were being done with it before the collapse and there is still so much we could do with a modest reinvestment in the facility."

Deciding not to rebuild, Becker said, affects all the radar science that was happening at Arecibo.

"We were able to use radar to pierce the clouds of Venus and actually study the surface. We were looking at Mercury and finding ice on Mercury's surface. We were looking at the moon with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. We were studying Mars. We were studying obviously most importantly, the asteroids, understanding where these asteroids are and how big they are."

Radar, said Becker, is a unique instrument for these sorts of observations and measurements because it allows you to figure out the velocity and trajectory of an asteroid more precisely than other methods.

"We have that capability with Goldstone but Arecibo was more powerful so people could do it better," she said. "So that's a pretty big loss."

Becker observed that Arecibo's location, was particularly valuable for ionospheric studies because it produced data that differs from facilities located in other locations.

She also said that the notion of transitioning Arecibo to an educational center overlooks the role the facility had been playing to advance science education. Becker said she got her start back in 2008 through a planetary science program at Arecibo.

Without any facilities, without any instruments, there won't be any scientists funded to actually work there anymore

"A lot of the education that's already happening at Arecibo comes from the ability for those students to work directly with scientists and they already have significant education programs there," she said.

"But without any facilities, without any instruments, there won't be any scientists funded to actually work there anymore. And so, in my opinion, the education center will suffer from the fact that there isn't the opportunity for the incredible training programs that already exist there."

Becker said China's FAST is the only other telescope that comes close to what Arecibo was doing. "I think the US should be striving to do even better than what China has currently," she said, noting that China's FAST telescope does not yet have radar capabilities because it's hard to do.

"But we were doing it and we've been doing it really, really well for decades," she said. "And I think it's something we should go back to doing." ®

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