The Arecibo Observatory was like a family. I couldn’t save him

The changes in management at Arecibo also indicated that the observatory still had a future. In 2011, SRI International – the famous nonprofit research organization that developed the first computer mouse, inkjet printing and voice assistant Siri – became the director of the observatory, sharing these tasks with two other organizations, including the Universidad Metropolitana de San Juan. Until this arrangement, a Puerto Rican organization had never formally been part of the observatory’s control.

While the IRS went out of its way to keep Arecibo relevant, the NSF, in the name of due diligence, actively undermined it. It released a 300-page report outlining the cost of removing the observatory and restoring the site to its previous state, a requirement if the facility were to be decommissioned. For supporters of the observatory, the costs of dismantling were deliberately and severely underestimated, one way of making this decision more acceptable.

The NSF also announced that the next management organization would have to accept a budget that would shrink even further, to just $ 2 million per year by 2022. In the fall of 2015, the observatory’s director, Robert Kerr, a longtime champion of the installation, quitting after falling out with the NSF and SRI. Unsurprisingly perhaps, SRI did not request the renewal of its contract upon expiration.

And so, in the summer of 2017 – by then, I had become a veteran of many committees – I went once again to Washington, to sit around a table 1,500 miles from the coasts. and discuss in impartial terms the dismal future of a place I love. This time I came home optimistic. The University of Central Florida, an unexpected candidate to run the observatory, had made a potentially revolutionary offer. The university would effectively turn Arecibo into a Florida-owned facility, making the state responsible for covering the observatory’s operations and maintenance costs.

It was risky, because the university had no experience of running an observatory the size of Arecibo, and no real tradition of radio astronomical research. More importantly, the Florida lawmaker would have to agree to this plan, but if it worked, the observatory would finally have a solid financial foundation to plan for its long-term future.

The inconvenients? It was the same as if we weren’t playing: an observatory with little or no funding in astronomy, and therefore little or no research in astronomy. Or worse, a closed observatory. Eventually, and to my surprise, the NSF chose Florida’s proposal.

Then in September 2017, Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm at its peak with winds reaching 175 mph, crashed into Puerto Rico, causing $ 90 billion in damage to the island. At least superficially, the observatory has been lucky. A 100-meter antenna was ripped off the platform, destroying several hundred panels of the dish when it fell. For a while, some equipment in the valley below the dish was only accessible by kayak. Still, the telescope was collecting data nine days after Maria’s death, before anyone could make a phone call in San Juan, even as some Arecibo staff also acted as first responders, distributing 14,000 gallons of drinking water per day.

Six months later, with the island still in shock, the University of Central Florida took over Arecibo. In June, a group of NSF-appointed scientists selected a proposal to build a unique new cryogenically cooled receiver for the telescope, capable of mapping trails of hydrogen gas around nearby galaxies and detecting new milliseconds. pulsars, neutron stars rotating thousands of times per second. Scheduled to be installed at the observatory in 2022, this new instrument has shown that for some astronomers, at least, the radio telescope has an important role to play in the future of the field. In August 2019, NSF released $ 12.3 million to carry out repairs and improvements after Maria, and NASA gave UCF a four-year grant of $ 19 million to find more near-Earth objects. . Optimism was in the air again.

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