The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico

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Astronomers relieved as U.S. funding agency moves to keep Arecibo telescope operating

Puerto Rico’s iconic Arecibo Observatory, recently battered by Hurricane Maria, looks set to remain open as a scientific facility following a yearslong assessment of its future. The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced today that it will be pursuing the option it has favored throughout the process: keeping Arecibo working, but with much-reduced funding from the agency.

The fact that this option has been formally chosen means that at least one viable partner has come forward to take on the bulk of the funding burden and manage the observatory. “Having the ability to keep this facility open is a win for everybody,” says Jim Ulvestad, acting assistant director for NSF’s Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate in Alexandria, Virginia.

The 54-year-old observatory, with a fixed dish built into a depression in the karst hills of western Puerto Rico, is the largest single-dish radio telescope in the world—at least until a larger rival in China becomes fully operational. It is used for a range of sciences, including radio astronomy in deep space and radar studies of planets, asteroids and Earth’s atmosphere.

But Arecibo’s importance in some fields has waned over the decades, as new facilities have come online. In reports dating back to 2006, NSF advisers have urged the agency to scale down funding for Arecibo and other older facilities to help pay for building and operating newer instruments. That pressure has increased this decade, as NSF has had to cope with stagnant budgets.

Last year, NSF embarked on an environmental impact study of Arecibo (and one on the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia), the first step in making a decision on the facilities’ futures. At the same time, NSF put out a solicitation for possible partners that could take over management of Arecibo and the bulk of the funding burden. The environmental study was completed earlier this year and NSF was due to announce its chosen future for Arecibo when Hurricane Maria struck on 20 September. The announcement was put on hold while researchers assessed the damage to the observatory. The damage turned out to be minimal, but following preliminary assessments NSF expects to spend between $4 million and $8 million on repairs.

In a statement released today, NSF says it will pursue its preferred option: “to collaborate with interested parties to maintain science-focused operations at the Observatory with reduced agency funding.” Ulvestad confirms that this was only possible because “one or more” viable partners had made proposals in response to the agency’s solicitation earlier in the year. “This is great news for us. It’s taken years to get to this point,” he says.

Ulvestad says negotiations will now begin with the potential partner or partners with a view to signing a deal before the current management arrangement, with SRI International, runs out at the end of March 2018. As laid out in the solicitation, during the 5 years of the contract, NSF contributions will ramp down from about $7 million annually to $2 million annually. 

The decision is "good news," says former Arecibo director Robert Kerr. "Thousands of [Arecibo] users remain anxious to learn how NSF will fund the ongoing scientific excellence at their legendary facility," he says.

Francisco Cordova, SRI’s director of Arecibo, told staff of the decision yesterday. “They are happy and relieved, and excited about the future,” he says. “It takes off the table all those rumours about demolition or mothballing and so on. We’re very pleased."

To fill the gap caused by NSF’s declining contribution, the new operators will need to find diverse funding streams, Cordova says. “There are a lot of possibilities for new innovation, new fields that Arecibo hasn’t been involved in.” Breakthrough Listen, the program funded by internet billionaire Yuri Milner to search for signals from extraterrestrial intelligence, has been interested in using Arecibo in recent years, as has NANOGrav, an NSF-funded project to detect gravitational waves by monitoring the timing of distant pulsars.  

*Update, 17 November, 6:30 a.m.: This story has been updated with quotes from Kerr and Cordova.