Tag Archives: Arecibo Observatory

Arecibo gets upgrade, new funding

Back from the dead: Threatened with closure only last year due to lack of funds, then damaged badly from Hurricane Maria, the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico has not only obtained a new operational funding from a new partner but also a $6 million upgrade.

The money will help design and build a super-sensitive set of antennas to be installed at the focal point of Arecibo’s dish. The 166 antennas, together part of the phased-array feed to be installed in 2022, are expected to significantly increase Arecibo’s capabilities. The phased-array feed will boost the telescope’s sky survey speed, making it five to six times faster than it is now, and it’ll enable the telescope to look at a larger piece of sky at one time.

…This month’s announced upgrade comes after years of uncertainty about Arecibo’s operations. In September 2017 Hurricane Maria caused about $14 million in damage to the telescope and ancillary buildings, some of which is still being repaired today. The facility lost its 430-megahertz line feed, which was used for atmospheric studies. Pieces of the antenna fell and punctured panels in the primary reflector of the main dish, forcing the replacement of 80–90 of the panels. There was also significant flooding under the primary reflector, which damaged some of the lines and heating facilities. In addition, several pieces of electronic equipment, some imagers, and laser rangers were damaged. Three buildings — a maintenance facility, a heater/transmitter building and a family unit — were also partially or completely destroyed due to rock and tree debris.

The hurricane was only the latest challenge for the observatory, after Arecibo had fought off repeated threats of closure over the previous decade due to NSF funding concerns. The latest situation was resolved last February, when a consortium led by the University of Central Florida took over operation and management of the observatory, significantly lessening the burden on NSF.

While Arecibo is no longer the world’s largest single radio dish, having been topped by China’s FAST radio telescope, it appears at least for now better positioned to do research. China does not yet have the radio astronomers experienced enough to operate its telescope, and so FAST at present is significantly under-utilized.

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New backers to run Arecibo

The National Science Foundation this week revealed the make-up of the consortium that is taking over the operation of the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico.

The new agreement is valued at $20.15 million over five years, subject to the availability of funds, and is scheduled to begin April 1, according to the statement.

The new partnership represents a mixture of academic and corporate interests. The Universidad Metropolitana in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Yang Enterprises Inc. in Oviedo, Florida, will partner with [the University of Central Florida] to manage the observatory. The team plans to expand the capabilities of the telescope, officials said.

This relieves the National Science Foundation (and the taxpayers) of the the cost burden for this facility, at least directly.

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Arecibo returns to operation with images of asteroid Phaethon

The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico has resumed science observations after recovering from Hurricane Maria with new radio images of the asteroid Phaethon.

After several months of downtime after Hurricane Maria blew through, the Arecibo Observatory Planetary Radar has returned to normal operation, providing the highest-resolution images to date of near-Earth asteroid 3200 Phaethon during its Dec. 16 flyby of Earth. The radar images, which are subtle at the available resolution, reveal the asteroid is spheroidal in shape and has a large concavity at least several hundred meters in extent near the leading edge, and a conspicuous dark, circular feature near one of the poles. Arecibo’s radar images of Phaethon have resolutions as fine as about 250 feet (75 meters) per pixel.

The images also revealed that Phaethon, which is considered a potentially hazardous near Earth asteroid, is about 3.6 miles across and is about a half mile larger than previously believed.

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Arecibo gets a backer to keep it running

The National Science Foundation has found at least one backer to pick up the majority of the cost for running the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, thus keeping it operational.

For about a decade, the National Science Foundation, which owns the observatory and supplies about two-thirds of its $12 million budget, had been mulling downsizing or even shuttering the telescope to free up funds for other projects. Instead, the NSF will continue scientific operations at the facility in collaboration with an unnamed partner organization, according to a Record of Decision signed this week.

Arecibo sustained $4 million to $8 million in damage during the hurricane, according James Ulvestad, acting assistant director for the agency’s mathematical and physical sciences directorate. Some scientists worried that would weaken the case for keeping the observatory operational.

But Ulvestad said the agency’s Record of Decision reflects that it has received viable partnership proposals from one or more collaborators — though he would not provide details about those proposals. This announcement allows the NSF to move forward with negotiations on a new management contract.

Under the new plan, the agency will reduce its annual contribution to the observatory from about $8.2 million to $2 million over the next five years. It is also committed to funding any repairs required to restore Arecibo to its pre-hurricane condition, Ulvestad said.

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Status of Arecibo radio observatory

It appears that, while Puerto Rico itself suffered devastating damage from Hurricane Maria, the Arecibo Observatory came through relatively unscathed.

The surface of the dish was largely unscathed, and the observatory’s most vulnerable component, the instrument platform suspended high above the dish by cables strung from three towers, each more than 80 meters tall, was still in place and seemed undamaged, says Schmelz. She is based at the Columbia, Maryland, headquarters of one of Arecibo’s operators, the Universities Space Research Association, and spoke with staff in Puerto Rico who first used a ham radio and then a single working satellite phone. But the roofs on some observatory buildings were blown off, the sinkhole under the dish was flooded, and other equipment was damaged by rain and fallen trees. Most significantly, a large portion of a 29-meter-long antenna—the 430-megahertz line feed used for studying the upper atmosphere—appears to have broken off and fallen from the platform into the dish. Mathews estimates a bill of several million dollars to replace the line feed alone.

Because of the significant infrastructure damage across the island, there will be significant delays in getting any of this fixed. Since the telescope is already being considered for shut down due to budget issues, these delays could lead to that shut down.

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Post-hurricane update from Arecibo radio telescope

USRA, the university consortium that operates the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, has released an update on the observatory’s condition following Hurricane Maria.

Currently, we have no contact with the Observatory. One observatory staff member located in Arecibo Town contacted via short-wave radio reports that trees are down, power is out, houses damaged and roads impassable. We have no reason to believe that staff sheltered at Arecibo Observatory are in immediate danger since they have generators, well water and plenty of food. This is a rapidly changing situation, and we are trying to do the best we can to contact USRA employees and find out their status.

Essentially, they don’t know much at this point.

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National Science Foundation considers shuttering Arecibo

Faced with tight budgets, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is considering several options for the future operation of the Arecibo Observatory, the world’s largest single radio telescope dish, including its complete removal.

[T]he NSF could mothball the site, shutting it down in such a way that it could restart (sometime in the future). Or it could dismantle the telescope altogether and restore the area to its natural state, as required by law if the agency fully divests itself of the observatory and closes it. Previous studies have said such a process could cost around $100 million—more than a decade’s worth of its current funding for telescope operations. Jim Ulvestad, director of the NSF Division of Astronomical Sciences, says the agency is still investigating, not concluding. “No alternative has been selected at this juncture,” he says. And much consideration will go into the final financial decision, whatever it may be. Some outside the agency see writing on the wall. “NSF is dead serious about offloading Arecibo funding to someone else—anyone else,” says Ellen Howell, a former staff scientist at Arecibo and now a faculty member at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) in Tucson, Arizona.

The article spends a lot of time talking about how wonderful Arecibo is, but never tells us how many astronomers actually demand to use it. Is it oversubscribed, like Hubble, where five times the number of astronomers request time than can be handled, or does it often sit unused because not enough astronomers require its use? NSF and the government do not have unlimited funds, and need to focus their spending where the demand is. If Arecibo is not in demand, then they are wise to consider closing it, or handing it off to someone who wants it.

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