The Arecibo Observatory was the largest single-dish radio telescope in the world until China supplanted it in 2016. Built into a karst sinkhole in 1960, Arecibo was important for research in many different areas of earth and space science.
Scientists working through accumulated data have just proven that it continues to be important, providing information on asteroids that could help the earth avoid catastrophe. Researchers say that there is still plenty of data to work with, collected over the years that Arecibo was in service.
Beyond the many contributions to science in the form of data, Arecibo also has contributed to science by inspiring and training numerous young scientists. Since its collapse, outpourings of sorrow and appreciation from the scientific community have made it clear that Arecibo has been an important part of the lives of America’s and the world’s scientists.
The collapse of Arecibo
Arecibo was badly damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and collapsed completely in 2020. It has been decommissioned.
The future of Arecibo
In spite of the pleas of scientists worldwide, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has decided not to rebuild the observatory. The government entity will not provide long-term funding even for the parts of the observatory that are still functional.
Instead, NSF will open a science education facility at the site.
“The U.S. National Science Foundation issued a solicitation on October 13 for a new multidisciplinary, world-class educational center at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico that aims to serve as a hub for STEM education and outreach,” there NSF said in an official statement. “The center would expand upon existing education and outreach opportunities currently in place at the Arecibo Observatory site, while also implementing new STEM programs and initiatives.”
Also from the statement:
The goals of the center would be to:
- Promote STEM education, learning, and teaching.
- Support fundamental and applied STEM and STEM education research.
- Broaden participation in STEM.
- Build and leverage existing and new collaborations and partnerships.
The center would have four primary functions aligned to its goals:
- Engage the public in STEM through education and outreach activities.
- Develop and implement a research and workforce development program.
- Support participation of individuals from underrepresented groups in STEM education and research.
- Cultivate and build authentic partnerships within and outside of Puerto Rico.
In addition to these plans, which will be funded by the NSF, the agency is open to proposals from teams that might want to use and fund the existing facilities. Proposals can be filed online.
While some at the observatory expressed relief, since they had feared that the entire operation might be shut down, there is still widespread dismay that the observatory and its telescope will. not be supported in the future.
When the Green Bank telescope collapsed, West Virginia’s powerful senators stepped up and advocated for its repair. Puerto Rico has no senators. The resident commissioner, Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon (R-PR) has spoken up for Arecibo, but she has no vote in the House and is only one representative, where a state of the size of Puerto Rico would have four Congressional representatives.
Arecibo Observatory is another victim of territory status.