Arecibo Radio Telescope Eyed as Possible Asteroid Early Warning System

The recent asteroid near-collisions (the last one passed inside the geostationary satellite orbit!) and the meteor explosion above Chelyabinsk, Russia, have generated more interest in detecting these objects well before they impact Earth. Several of the news reports on asteroid tracking mention the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico., in the article NASA scrambles for better asteroid detection has this to say about the Arecibo radio telescope's role:

“The NEO program at NASA currently detects and tracks Earth-approaching asteroids and comets with land-based and orbiting telescopes. Scientists estimate their mass and orbit to gauge whether they pose a danger. With this system, the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, which has an antenna 305 meters in diameter, can observe with great sensitivity a third of the night sky and detect asteroids that are on the large side.”

As asteroid 2012 DA14 approached Earth, reported NASA will fire radar at asteroid during close flyby today. It described the procedure this way: “Radar observations of asteroids are taken from two sites on Earth. The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico is the most sensitive, but its 1,000-foot (305 meters) dish is set firmly in the ground, limiting it to a view of only 30 percent of the sky. Goldstone Observatory, located in the Mojave Desert in Southern California, is the more mobile of the two telescopes... The fully steerable instrument can cover about 80 percent of the night sky.” In the article, Lance Berner, of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said, “The two telescopes complement each other very well.”

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, has been facing funding cuts and possible shut down due to limited budgets. One benefit of the recent asteroid/meteor scare might be to ensure this critical resource is able to continue providing valuable data that, who knows, might one day save the Earth.

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.