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Flat science budgets could kill the Arecibo Observatory, the world’s largest telescope

The Arecibo Observatory has been the world’s largest single-aperture telescope for more than 50 years. But decreasing funding for its mission could result in its retirement and destruction in the near future.

Arecibo has been used in a number of breakthroughs and discoveries, including refining the rotational period of Mercury, discovering the first binary pulsar and confirming the existence of gravitational waves, conducting the first direct imaging of an asteroid, detecting the first exoplanets, and contributing substantial amounts of data to the SETI project. (Note: The existence of gravitational waves wasn’t directly observed until last September, but Arecibo’s 1974 observations of a binary pulsar in 1974 could only be explained if both objects were emitting gravity waves as predicted by the general theory of relativity).

Unfortunately, federal funding has generally failed to keep up with the ways that funding could be distributed. Currently, NASA funds part of the observatory’s operational costs, with the remainder picked up by the National Science Foundation (NSF). NSF funding has been largely flat for over a decade, not including a large one-time boost in 2009 and a small amount of new spending mandated for this year. Total spending in constant dollars has increased only modestly since 2003 – 2004, despite the importance of basic research.

The NSF only contributes $8.2 million to Arecibo, which makes the observatory’s entire existence a rounding error in the NSF budget, much less the United States’ annual expenditures. But constrained times make more difficult choices. Friends and proponents of the observatory point to its continuing educational mission, decades of scientific discoveries, and its ability to search for gravitational waves at a time when those waves have only recently been directly detected.

In theory, the Arecibo Observatory could be put to extremely efficient use on the cutting edge of astronomy despite its age and the need for additional maintenance. Modernizing the existing facility would likely be far cheaper than building a new one. Arecibo is the most sensitive radio telescope on Earth — there are no equivalents currently available, though some have argued that other observatories can collectively perform the work now handled at Arecibo. The observatory is also the best facility on Earth, bar none, for monitoring near-Earth asteroids that could theoretically damage or destroy life on this planet. NASA has already stated it will continue to operate and fund facilities at the installation for as long as the telescope remains intact.

There’s always a case to be made for retiring older facilities and intelligently spending limited grant money, to be sure. But the relatively low cost of keeping Arecibo open and the facility’s proven history are potent arguments for keeping it funded. $8.3 million seems an exceedingly small price to pay for the potential gains from keeping Arecibo’s unique capabilities available.

Now read: What are gravitational waves, and where does physics go from here now that we’ve found them?

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