The famous Arecibo telescope will not be rebuilt – and astronomers are heartbroken

The dish of the 305-meter-wide telescope at the Arecibo Observatory was destroyed at the end of 2020, after the support cables broke.Credit: Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty

After a world-famous radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico collapsed two years ago, many scientists hoped the US National Science Foundation (NSF), which runs the facility, would eventually build a new one to replace it. Instead, the agency announced that it would establish a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education center at the site. The revised plan could slow down or drastically alter the remaining research underway at Arecibo.

“It’s heartbreaking,” says Héctor Arce, an astronomer at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, who is originally from Puerto Rico and has worked on Arecibo’s advocacy efforts. “To many, this seems like another unfair way to treat Puerto Rico’s colonial territory.”

The NSF says it is following community recommendations by not planning to rebuild the large telescope and instead creating the new education center. “We’re not shutting down Arecibo,” says Sean Jones, chief executive of mathematical and physical sciences at the NSF. “We believe this new approach and this new center will be catalytic in many areas.”

The agency announced its plans in a call for proposals on Oct. 13. He’s asking for ideas to create and run an education center in Arecibo, at a cost of US$1-3 million per year over five years starting in 2023. That money may or may not include funds to run research facilities. in Arecibo still in use. , such as a 12-meter radio antenna and a lidar system that uses lasers to study the Earth’s atmosphere.

The situation “could be worse,” says Abel Méndez, a planetary astronomer at the University of Puerto Rico in Arecibo, who uses the 12-meter antenna for research and teaching. But “it could be much, much better”.

“It’s devastating to know that this is their ultimate decision,” says Desirée Cotto-Figueroa, an astronomer at the University of Puerto Rico at Humacao. “Especially despite all the efforts made by the staff and scientists of the Arecibo Observatory and by the scientific community in general to ensure that it continues to operate as the research center of excellence that it has always been with remaining observation facilities.”

An education center

A major question is how the Arecibo site will attract students and teachers if there is little active research to participate in. Helsinki in Finland. “How can we do this without world-class scientists, engineers and instruments?”

The NSF says it asks for precisely those kinds of ideas. The new center could support ongoing work in astronomy and planetary sciences, or it could focus on other areas such as biological sciences, says James L. Moore III, chief education and resources officer. NSF Humans. “Here’s an opportunity to reimagine what the possibilities might be,” he says.

The Arecibo Observatory has long been a powerhouse of STEM education in Puerto Rico due to its renowned telescope and its place in astronomical history. Students trained there have become professional astronomers and planetary scientists in many countries.

The 305-meter-wide radio telescope that collapsed in 2020 has played a key role in many fields of science for more than half a century, including the search for extraterrestrial life, the discovery of the first extrasolar planets and gravitational waves , and the study of near-Earth asteroids and fast radio bursts.

The NSF has operated the observatory since the 1970s, working with a series of contractors. It has been trying to reduce its investments in Arecibo since 2006, to transfer funding to new astronomical facilities. Supporters rallied and research continued, but the observatory faced new challenges in 2017, when Hurricane Maria damaged much of the facility, and in early 2020, when a series of earthquakes caused more damage.

Then came the collapse of the 305-meter dish. One of its crucial support cables failed in August 2020, then another in November of that year, and the NSF decided it was too structurally faulty to repair. An engineering investigation revealed five factors that contributed to the collapse, including cable system design, delayed maintenance, and hurricane and earthquake damage.

Nor is an observatory

Research continued in the smaller facilities of the Arecibo Observatory. Currently funded projects using these facilities will be able to wind down, Jones says, and scientists can offer to continue their use as part of the new education center.

The lidar facilities include a potassium laser that studies the temperature of layers of the Earth’s atmosphere and a new instrument planned to probe aerosols such as atmospheric dust. The 12-meter antenna serves as a node in a long-range astronomical network operated by European astronomers. Other research projects using it include Méndez’s studies of red dwarf stars and the habitability of planets around them.

Many who work with Arecibo’s instruments are now scrambling to figure out how to slow down their research projects. Under the new plan, the site will no longer be called the Arecibo Observatory – becoming instead the Arecibo Center for STEM Education and Research.

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