World's Largest Radio Telescope Faces Funding Cuts
November 16, 2006
According to a posting last week on Slashdot.org, a panel of experts have recommended reducing funding to Arecibo Observatory, home of the world's largest radio telescope.
The NSF-AST Senior Review Report, dated Nov. 3, 2006, said the purpose of the review "is to enable AST [NSF Division of Astronomical Services] to reallocate its facilities support funding so that funds are available both to continue the operation of high priority existing facilities and for initiating new activities as informed by the recommendations of the recent Decade Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics."
According to the Slashdot posting, unless other sources of funding are found, "Arecibo faces serve cuts in its program, with the prospect of closure around the year 2011." The posting goes on to say that the global Square Kilometer Array (SKA) project is cited as the reason for the closure, but another part of the Senior Review calls that into question, saying "U.S. participation in the international Square Kilometer Array program, including precursor facilities, should remain community-driven until the U.S. is in a position to commit to a major partnership in the project."
In reference to Arecibo, the Senior Review states "...the committee was not persuaded of the primacy of the science program beyond the end of the decade and found that the case for long term support at the present level was not as strong as that for other facilities. Much of the survey work will be completed by 2010 when the current NAIC contract expires and the proposed extensions to higher Galactic latitude do not seem as likely as the current surveys to have a large scientific impact."
The Senior Review says the committee was advised the minimum feasible operating cost for Arecibo, working largely in survey mode, is $8 million. It recommended reducing AST support to Arecibo to this level (plus $2 million from another source) over the next three years. After three years, the Senior Review recommended NAIC plan either to close Arecibo or operate it with a much smaller AST budget, which would require NAIC to seek sufficient external funding to continue operating Arecibo. The Senior Review outlines some possible external funding sources, including foreign partners, but recommends closing after 2011 "if the necessary support is not forthcoming."
It is interesting that the Senior Review recommends the operation of the Angel Ramos Visitor Center continue, even if the radio telescope is shut down,
The report from the Senior Review committee, From the Ground Up: Balancing the NSF Astronomy Program, provides an excellent overview of the state of astronomy today and the potential for the future. It includes photographs of facilities and equipment plus images from both optical and radio telescope observatories.