Despite significant recommended cuts from NSF for Arecibo, Cornell astronomers are optimistic about observatory's future

On Nov. 3, the Senior Review, an advisory panel to the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Astronomical Sciences, recommended a 24 percent cut in funding over the next three years for Arecibo Observatory, which Cornell manages as the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC). The panel also advised NAIC to find outside partners to cover another recommended 40 percent funding cut by 2011 or risk closure.

Despite this news, Cornell astronomers remained upbeat about the long-term future of the telescope.

Joseph Burns, Cornell vice provost for physical sciences and engineering, issued a statement in response to the report:

"….Cornell supports the NSF's overall plan to find funds to carry out new initiatives, but we are disappointed with some of the Senior Review's specific recommendations into the next decade. We remain dedicated to the core scientific programs of the Arecibo Observatory and, accordingly, we are pleased that the review recognizes the facility's significant contributions today and its potential for important discoveries well into the next decade. Our staff will be working with our astronomy community to identify cost savings … (and) we are confident that Arecibo's remarkable research and educational programs will be kept strong into 2011 and beyond."

The Arecibo Observatory's 305-meter diameter antenna, the world's largest and most sensitive radio-radar telescope, attracts more than 250 scientists to northwestern Puerto Rico from around the world every year and has been the source of pivotal discoveries about pulsars, planets, distant galaxies, near earth objects and the interstellar medium, as well as key findings about gravitational physics, atmospheric sciences and more.

Arecibo has received several major upgrades in recent years. The Arecibo L-Band Feed Array (ALFA), which began operation in spring 2005, for example, allows researchers to survey large swaths of sky and search for such time-variable phenomena as pulsars seven times more efficiently than in the past.

"You could very well say it's a new phase for Arecibo," said Cornell professor of astronomy Jim Cordes. "We're doing things that are pretty unique to what Arecibo can do -- playing on its strengths."

Arecibo is also one of only two telescopes in the world with radar capability (the other is the Goldstone NASA tracking telescope in California). Radar research has yielded some of the most detailed imaging of the surface of the Moon, as well as a much more accurate characterization of the surfaces of other planets and near earth objects. It remains a vital tool for a wide range of studies in planetary science.

In addition, the observatory hosts Angel Ramos Foundation Visitor and Educational Facility, a self-supporting educational center, which receives over 100,000 visitors annually.

Cornell has operated Arecibo as a national facility since 1971, and in 2005 was awarded a cooperative agreement to continue operations until 2010.

The Senior Review's report was based on an assumption that the NSF's overall budget would not increase in the next five years. It considered ongoing and future projects within three major branches of astronomy: optical and infrared astronomy; radio, millimeter and submillimeter astronomy; and solar astronomy.

"The idea of this exercise was to put us in a good position to move forward with a very exciting scientific program," said Wayne van Citters, director of the Division of Astronomical Sciences. "We have to look at it as a very positive step toward a bright future for astronomical sciences."

Citing Arecibo's unique strengths, Burns said he is confident that Arecibo will continue to prove its usefulness. "The refocusing of scientific programs is something we can handle very adequately," he said. "We're very optimistic for a scientifically exciting future."

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