Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory Survives Hurricane Maria, But Will Receive Less Funding From NSF

Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory Survives Hurricane Maria, But Will Receive Less Funding From U.S.

For over a decade, there’s been a lot of uncertainty about the future of Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory. These concerns ramped up after Hurricane Maria wrought damage on the historic radio telescope, and two months later, millions of dollars worth of repairs are still required. But the National Science Foundation announced Thursday that it will continue funding the observatory and allow it to remain open.

While this is good news for the astronomers performing science observations at Arecibo, there is a bit of a caveat to the NSF’s announcement, Space.com wrote. Currently, the agency shoulders about two-thirds of the Arecibo Observatory’s $12 million annual budget, but with the recent decision, it will reduce its contributions to about a fourth of the original amount, with funding set to go down from $8.2 million to $2 million over the next five years.

Despite the greatly reduced contributions from the U.S. government, the NSF announced in its Record of Decision that it will be seeking new partners and stakeholders to team up with, in hopes that these institutions inject funds that could allow the Arecibo Observatory to run smoothly in the coming years.

The very fact that the NSF confirmed that it will continue funding Arecibo was good news for several scientists connected to the 54-year-old observatory. University of Puerto Rico, Arecibo planetary astrobiologist Abel Mendez simply called the decision “great news,” while observatory director Francisco Cordova said that there was “definitely a sense of relief in the air” upon hearing the NSF’s announcement.

As noted by Space.com, the observatory also receives funding from other institutions, including SRI International, which helps operate the facility, and NASA, which uses Arecibo data to search for dangerous near-Earth asteroids. The observatory is also used by astronomers to seek out signs of extraterrestrial life and exoplanets that could potentially contain the key ingredients of life.

“We were quite surprised by how little damage there was,” said SRI International spokesman John Kelly, while stressing that there were still some key features affected when Hurricane Maria struck.

“The reflector itself sustained minor damage when a couple of minor feed antennas broke and fell into the dish, damaging 15 or 20 of the panels. There are thousands of panels that make up that reflector, and only about 15 or 20 have been damaged. And they’re replaceable.”

Hurricane Maria was just the latest challenge the Arecibo Observatory had faced in recent years. Gizmodo wrote that the storm had the potential to become an era-ending event by shutting down the observatory due to the damages, but Arecibo nonetheless reopened a week after Maria struck, with “limited observations” taking place after repairs were done. Currently, the observatory is relying on diesel generators, and the NSF believes that about $4 million to $8 million worth of repairs are still needed for the facility to return to full speed.

Aside from the financial issues that have plagued it for several years, the Arecibo Observatory went through some significant organizational shakeups this decade. A 2015 article from Nature detailed the circumstances surrounding the departure of physicist Robert Kerr, who served as Arecibo’s principal investigator and operations director until that year. The report noted that Kerr left the observatory over disagreements with the NSF, which was supposedly planning to reduce funding to Arecibo if it began taking third-party payments for assistance on an extraterrestrial intelligence-related survey.

Even with the reduced annual budget contributions from the NSF, the important thing for Arecibo Observatory scientists is the fact that it will remain open. Although Arecibo has since been eclipsed by China’s FAST telescope as the second largest single-dish radio telescope, researchers believe that having two separate facilities to conduct experiments allows them to feel more confident about scientific discoveries.

[Featured Image by Tomas van Houtryve/AP Images]