Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Arecibo's uncertain future explained

During the last weeks or even months there's been a lot of rumors about the funding situation of the Arecibo Observatory. Some of you might have read the articles in major popular science magazines (or their web pages) such as National Geographic or Scientific American announcing troubling future for the observatory. Even among the employees of the observatory there's been a lot of confusion and anxiety about the issue. If you're not familiar with the background, the source of all the hassle is an announcement given by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that their advisory committees have recommended the reduction or, in the worst case scenario, ceasing of the observatory's funding and that they are looking for new collaborating parties to participate in the funding. This way they would be able to fund better newer telescopes as well as scientists. Currently, NSF funds the major part of the observatory's budget, $8.2 million per year, with NASA putting in $3.7 million to cover the planetary radar research. Note that the planetary radar research is congress mandated but NASA is not, however, currently willing to fund nor operate the whole observatory.

Yesterday two public meetings were held in San Juan as well as Arecibo, in which the NSF representatives represented the five options for the future of the observatory:
1) No actions are taken, NSF funding and science-focused operations continue as before
2) NSF reduces funding but collaboration with interested parties enables science-focused operations
3) Transition to education-focused operations, research ceases
4) Temporary suspension of operations but resuming in the future (mothballing)
5) Deconstruction and site restoration.

Although the meeting was "public", 95 % of the attendants were NSF or observatory employees or their relatives/spouses/close friends. Apparently nobody had notified NSF that when it comes to Puerto Rico, publicizing an event is not made with a small printed or online notification but with speakers and megaphones on a pick-up truck driving through all the streets. Also the name of the meeting was dressed as bureaucratic jargon ('NSF environmental impact statement and section 106 consultation for proposed changes to Arecibo Observatory operations') so the point of the meeting may have remained unclear for some of those locals who had seen the notifications. In essence, the point is to map the environmental, and also socioeconomic consequences of the different options. Note that if NSF decided to shut down the observatory for good, it has a liability to dismantle the telescope. Needless to say, that is not an option which anyone, even in the NSF advisory committees, would choose light-heartedly. Which ever decision is made, according to current plans the funding from the NSF should continue at least until spring 2018. The decision target is summer 2017.

Patrick and Andrew in the NSF meeting
Officially, the observatory employees are restricted to discuss any observatory matters to the public without a permission from the NSF or SRI International (another current collaborator). Unless it's something that is separately announced as public or reads on the NSF or observatory webpage anyway. Everything in the yesterday's meeting was public, so to let anyone who's interested to know what are the probabilities of each option based on the public comments that were given in the meeting, I'll summarize some good points made by the commenters.

  • Reducing the NSF funding would also cripple the congress-mandated NASA funding, as it cannot keep the observatory up on it's own. We are currently and in near-future the only observatory with a powerful radar transmitter, helping to prevent the "environmental impact" that might follow from a deficient follow-up of near-Earth asteroids.
  • There may be a unique biodiversity under the dish that must be well surveyed before even considering to dismantle the telescope, not to mention geologic and ground-water surveys (if you didn't know, the telescope is actually a mesh suspended in a natural depression providing a shady environment for various plants).
  • The observatory has served an immense educational and inspirational purpose for decades especially for visiting children and students, encouraging them into science and technology. The Arecibo Observatory has it's own space academy (AOSA) for a few tens of Puertorican high-school students per term preparing them to college. Two thirds of the students already have a PhD, which is a huge number considering the level of education on the island. If we were a university, we would be statistically in the top 10 % of most graduating hispanic students. Especially hispanic women are underrepresented in science and technology, but AOSA helps them to get into the best universities of the world. In addition, we have every summer a bunch of undergraduate students from all over the USA. One of the old students is currently working as a senior manager at ALMA. It was also mentioned that spouses of observatory employees have founded good schools on the island. However, without active research on site, the educational and inspirational sides of the observatory would not fulfill. 
  • The crippled economy of Puerto Rico and especially the local areas get huge socioeconomic benefits from the observatory. Tourists come to see the telescope from all over the world. The visitor center hosts as much as 100,000 visitors per year. Would they come to see an empty hole in the ground? In addition, the purchases of the observatory are made primarily from local producers in order to keep the money in Puerto Rico.  
  • Although the meeting concentrated on environmental and socioeconomic consequences, the commenters reminded that we're a crucial instrument for various scientific projects, such as NANOGrav that uses the largest radiotelescopes in the world to observe gravitational waves. The commenter reminded that the gravitational waves were first detected only after the first advisory committee recommendations. In addition we're anticipating several findings concerning fast radio pulses and black holes.
View from under the dish.
So how likely are the different options? From my personal point of view:
1) No actions taken can be either the best or the second best option. The science, education and being a source of inspiration to masses would continue – but for how long? The risk of scarce funding would likely still remain or at least return within a decade, the way it has been for the last decade. This is quite likely option though.
2) The best option would be to find a collaborator or a few that would provide secure funding for years to come. I'd say that it's likely to find at least some new collaborator(s), but the more secure the funding, the smaller the probability of finding it.
3) Transition to education-based operations seems a stupid solution as big part of the educational success is based on the active research that inspires the students. What about the maintenance of the telescope? Would it continue? In Puerto Rico, the continuous maintenance is vital. This is (hopefully) a very unlikely option.
4) The temporary suspension of the operations is actually a very similar option to the education-based operations. The same questions follow: What about the maintenance of the telescope? Would even remote observing be possible? When would the operations continue or is it just an excuse to avoid the liability to dismantle the telescope? Personally, I see this as a more likely option for NSF than deconstruction but (as an optimist) less likely as continuing the research in some way or another.
5) Again, maybe too optimistic but I'd say that the worst option is also the least likely of the five. The bio-, geo-, water- and other surveys in addition to the cost of bulldozing the largest radiotelescope of the western world against the strong congressional support would be the absolutely last option any sane person could take.

Another topic that has been lately under discussion or even debate is the Five hundred meter aperture telescope (FAST) that is under construction in China and should be operational this year. Will Arecibo observatory cease to be the biggest and best radio telescope in the world? Should the observatory be closed because there's now a better one? Well, it's not so black and white. As Rhys Taylor says: "anyone thinking that Arecibo is about to become obsolete is woefully mistaken". The bottom line: FAST may look big, but it doesn't have a radar transmitter.

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