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The Arecibo radio telescope will soon be managed by a university consortium.

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Iconic Arecibo radio telescope saved by university consortium

A consortium led by the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando will take over management of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, home to one of the world’s largest radio telescopes, the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, announced today. NSF has been looking for another body to take over the running of the iconic facility ever since a 2006 review suggested the agency ramp down its funding to free up money for newer projects.

“We’re delighted that there are signatures on paper,” says Richard Green, director of NSF’s astronomical sciences division. “That’s a fabulous moment at the end of a long process.” NSF now spends $8 million a year to run Arecibo, with NASA pitching in another $3.6 million. Under the agreement signed today, by 1 October 2022, NSF’s contribution will shrink to $2 million per year, with the UCF consortium making up the difference. UCF will complete the takeover as operator on 1 April, although an agreement detailing the transfer of funds must still be finalized, says James Ulvestad, NSF’s chief officer for scientific facilities.

UCF has teamed up with the Metropolitan University in San Juan and Yang Enterprises in Oviedo, Florida, a company that has NASA and U.S. Air Force contracts to operate and maintain facilities. Ray Lugo, head of UCF’s Florida Space Institute, says the consortium hopes to bring in new users to contribute toward costs. He says the U.S. Department of Defense may want to use Arecibo to test sensors, while space mining companies may want to scope out target asteroids. “We want to bring other customers to the table,” he says. The consortium also wants to expand the telescope’s scientific capabilities, in part by upgrading equipment as repairs are carried out in the wake of damage suffered during following Hurricane Maria.

Users of the 305-meter radio dish include astronomers, planetary scientists, and atmospheric physicists, and Arecibo is still a powerful scientific tool for them, even at 54 years old. The agreement with UCF also recognizes Arecibo’s significance beyond the scientific community, Ulvestad says. “It’s a hugely important technological icon in an underserved community,” he says.

Some scientists are relieved that the facility avoided closure, even though they lament the handover from NSF. “I am pleased by the commitment of new management to continue and to expand the scientific and educational excellence of Arecibo Observatory,” says Robert Kerr, former Arecibo director. “I am disappointed by the tragic and ill-conceived divestment by NSF. That is a net loss for the foundation, and for basic U.S. scientific research and development.”

NSF views the agreement with UCF as a possible blueprint for efforts to finding alternative funding for other aging telescopes, Green says. In particular, in 2012 a review committee recommended that the agency ramp down its funding for the 100-meter Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. “We’re hoping that [the Arecibo agreement] will give us and the community confidence that as other divestment efforts proceed, we can reach similar outcomes,” Green says.

*Correction, 22 February, 4:55 p.m.: The story has been corrected to indicate that the current 100-meter Green Bank Telescope began operations in 2001, after the original 90-meter telescope collapsed in 1988.