While the NSF plans to establish an educational center at the Arecibo Observatory, the institution has stated it will not fund science there.
When the National Science Foundation announced the establishment of a new educational center at Arecibo in Puerto Rico, the statement sent shock waves through the astronomical community for what the institution would not support.
From the statement itself, “The solicitation does not include rebuilding the 305-meter telescope or operational support for current scientific infrastructure, such as the 12-meter radio telescope or Lidar facility.” Scientists have programs running currently that use the 12-meter dish to study space weather and the Lidar facility to study Earth’s upper atmosphere.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has been the steward of Arecibo Observatory since its construction was completed nearly 60 years ago, in 1963. In more recent decades, funding struggles have plagued the facility, but ultimately new partners emerged to manage operations.
Then the iconic 305-meter dish at the observatory's heart collapsed at the end of 2020. Even though the community rallied with ideas for a replacement, it was clear it would be many years in the making. The contract of the most recent facility manager, the University of Central Florida (UCF), was already set to expire at the end of March 2023 with no clear plans for the future.
Now, the recent NSF announcement puts the writing on the wall.
“We're entering a transition phase to ramp down scientific and technical activities and hand over to the future STEM education center managers,” says Julie Brisset, who directs the Florida Space Institute at UCF.
What the new education center would look like is still unclear: NSF is soliciting proposals for programs, due in December, so exactly who would manage the new facility is still up in the air. The center would supplement significant education and outreach programs already happening at the observatory.
With the NSF call for proposals for the STEM education center released just last week, time is short. Brisset told Sky & Telescope that NSF has indicated they could extend UCF’s contract (and thus the transition period) until the fall of next year. And despite the lack of support for the existing facilities, it’s still up in the air whether the observatory could continue operations in some form. “I'm pretty sure they would not disregard the opportunity to have science going on — they're just not going to fund it,” Brisset says.
In fact, the NSF announcement states, “Teams seeking to utilize existing scientific infrastructure or proposing for new projects can submit proposals that are complementary to the scope of the new center.” An NSF spokesperson confirmed that such proposals would be coordinated with NSF and the new managers of the reimagined center.
But the instruments are fragile: To be used for science, they must be taken care of. “If there's, say, one month or so when it's not used and maintained, then usually it doesn't work when you show up again,” Brisset notes.
The NSF announcement came as a shock to many in the community. Tracy Becker, now at Southwest Research Institute, got her start in planetary science via the Research Experience for Undergraduates program at Arecibo. “I was not expecting the NSF announcement,” Becker says. “Like many other scientists, I have always remained optimistic that the gravitas of the iconic telescope, plus the incredible and diverse scientific research being conducting there and could be conducted there in the future with a modest investment, would be enough to warrant rebuilding the telescope.”
Becker still works with radar data taken by Arecibo; archived in NASA’s Planetary Data System, that data will remain available even if operations close down. But she notes that many of the computational programs developed to interpret this data — for example, to extract an asteroid’s shape from radar imagery — was developed to work on Arecibo’s own computer systems. “It may become more difficult than it currently is to conduct our research if the site is converted to a STEM education center,” she says.
There also remains the question of replacing Arecibo’s radar capabilities: No existing facility matches what Arecibo could do in terms of characterizing near-Earth asteroids, though it's possible that some capabilities can be recovered through additional investments in existing facilities. NSF reports that it has engaged NASA and other federal agency partners to explore next-generation ground-based radar needs in FY 2022. It expects to have more information to report on this effort in mid-FY 2023.
But perhaps the biggest impact will likely be on the community in Puerto Rico. “To me, there is irony in creating a STEM education center in Puerto Rico through the closure one of the largest facilities on the island that actually employs people with STEM careers,” Becker says. “The engineers and scientists who operate the Arecibo Observatory instruments will need to look for different jobs and many will likely be driven to leave the island of Puerto Rico.”
Brisset agrees. “This is a big loss for the Puerto Rican community,” she says. “I mean, it's great to have a STEM education center there, but a STEM education center always benefits from active science.”