Tuesday, March 20, 2007

save the Arecibo Observatory

The Arecibo Observatory is facing the axe.
As the result of a Senior Review undertaken by the Astronomy Division of the National Science Foundation, the following recommendation was made:

"Therefore, invoking Principle 1, the SR recommends a decrease in AST support for Arecibo to $8M (plus the $2M from ATM) over the next three years.52 Roughly 20 percent of the observing time
should be set aside for individual (non-survey) proposals in order to retain some
discovery potential. This should permit a reduction in the scientific and observing support
staff and a discontinuation of the future instrumentation program without compromising
the main science program. Thereafter, the SR recommends that NAIC plan either to close
Arecibo or to operate it with a much smaller AST budget."

Presently, Arecibo receives support of $10.5M from the astronomy division of the Math and Physical Sciences Directorate of the NSF and $1.7M from the atmospheric sciences division of the Geosciences Directorate of the NSF.

Why save Arecibo?

1. Even after 43 years, Arecibo is still the largest single-dish telescope on earth. Contrary to the view of the Senior Review (SR), there is no ceiling to the excellent forefront science that can and will be done at Arecibo.
2. Arecibo is the only facility on earth that can measure the trajectories of earth-bound asteroids with sufficient precision and time for humanity to be able to plan and launch counter-measures.
3. Arecibo has some of the highest demand of any scientific facility. Its publication rate and science impact are huge relative to its $12M budget.
4. Arecibo has a major impact on the education of young people in Puerto Rico. It is the only public-accessible major scientific facility on the island. It introduces students to concepts that are presented nowhere else on the island.
5. Arecibo is an international icon. It draws tourists to Puerto Rico and enhances the prestige of the island, both nationally and internationally.
6. Arecibo's UHF radar system is unmatched in the world for the study of the earth's ionosphere and sun-earth environment. It makes measurements that are critical to our understanding of the space environment in which the earth resides. It is also capable of using the ionosphere as a unique plasma physics laboratory and makes measurements that are vital to our understanding of extreme environments. This is critical knowledge if we are to succeed in developing technologies such as nuclear fusion for energy.
7. The Space and Atmospheric Sciences program at Arecibo is the best-equipped laboratory of its kind on earth. The UHF radar is coupled to an optical remote sensing laboratory. Together they carry out investigations of the middle and upper, neutral and ionized, atmosphere. Puerto Rico is in a unique tropical location. There are few tropical sites that can carry out atmospheric studies. Thus, Arecibo can contribute critical and irreplaceable data to atmospheric models.

The NSF has told Cornell to anticipate operating the Arecibo Observatory on $4M per year from AST beginning in fiscal 2011. This represents a 65% budget cut from the present!

Cornell/Arecibo have been urged to look for alternative funding. This is something we are undertaking as aggressively as possible, but it is problematic for various reasons:
1. Only the NSF is interested in providing for operational costs. Other possible funding sources will support specific projects, be they scientific or infrastructure, but they are not interested in giving an annual amount for the observatory administration to use as required.
2. Lack of clear and unequivocal support works directly against any fundraising efforts. No-one wants to pour $ into a sinking ship. Cornell is loath to give unconditional support, as the facility does not belong to Cornell and could be taken away at any time. NSF/AST has many more commitments than it can presently afford to pay for (one reason for the SR), so its commitment to Arecibo is not strong.
3. These commitments were the result of a common political reality: the broken promise. Upon entering the presidency, one policy that GW Bush continued from the Clinton administration was a 5-year doubling of the NSF budget. The terrorist attack of 11 Sept 2001 put an end to that, but by then NSF/AST had made commitments that it could not back out of.

I should not forget that not all at NSF are negative about Arecibo. The atmospheric sciences division has promised a substantial increase in support. That cannot go anywhere near what we are losing from astronomy, but it is a strong and welcome endorsement.

Finally, perhaps our most critical program, the near-earth asteroids project, is slated to be shut down next autumn if funds are not found. It costs close to $1M/year to run this program, a bargain considering the return. If it closes and then the funds are found, that is still a huge problem, as the scientists, engineers, data analysts, technicians, etc. that are supported by the program will already be gone, unlikely to return.

Jonathan S. Friedman
Senior Research Associate
Arecibo Observatory

No comments: