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NSF Tags $400 Million From Stimulus for New Facilities

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has decided to begin building three major new scientific facilities: a research ship, a solar telescope, and a network of ocean observatories. NSF Director Arden Bement Jr. announced today that the funds come from NSF's $3 billion pot of stimulus money, adding that the $400 million investment will not only create jobs but also save taxpayers money by allowing NSF to avoid further delays that are likely to drive up costs.

"We've been working on this for 10 years, and it's like a dream come true," says Terry Whitledge of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, who's principal investigator for the Alaska Region Research Vessel. NSF hopes that this year's allocation of $148 million will be enough to build the 75-meter-long ship, which, although not an icebreaker, will have an extra-thick steel hull to clear its path through icy waters. But uncertainty over the cost of materials, labor, and the price of oil could still boost that price by 20% or more, Whitledge warns. He expects as many as a dozen U.S. shipyards to bid on the project, which will take 2 to 3 years to complete once a contract is awarded this fall.

The Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) is getting $106 million this year to begin building its network of sensors to measure physical, chemical, geological, and biological variables in the ocean. The money would be a down payment on three deep-sea buoys, five regional electro-optical cabled networks on the sea floor, and coastal observatories. Bement said that additional funding would be needed for the cyberinfrastructure to link these components. NSF is requesting $14 million for OOI in its 2010 budget to continue construction.

The Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST) will get $146 million this year so astronomers can begin construction of the 4-meter, $253 million instrument that would image the sun's surface in unprecedented detail. Local groups have raised cultural and environmental concerns about its location atop the Haleakala summit on the Hawaiian island of Maui, which already hosts half a dozen smaller telescopes. NSF is also requesting $10 million for ATST in its 2010 budget.