Sept. 13, 2007

Arecibo telescope's global users converge on nation's capital to plan threatened observatory's scientific future

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- More than 70 astronomers gathered on Capitol Hill this week, not to talk about the demise of a major national research facility, but to plan for its scientific future. With optimism, the group was planning the next 15 years of research for Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory, the home of the world's largest radio telescope.

Despite proposed severe federal budget cuts for the observatory by 2011, the astronomers -- users from all over the world -- had enough faith to plan for new research and new instrumentation on the 44-year-old telescope.

Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and managed by Cornell's National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC), the observatory already has reduced its current $8 million operating budget by $2 million since last year, and funding will remain level over the next three years. The budget reduction was the result of an NSF Senior Review panel recommendation last year. Administrators at the observatory and Cornell are working to secure funding and keep the telescope working.

The packed meeting on Sept. 12 and 13 -- called "Frontiers of Astronomy With the World's Largest Radio Telescope" -- created a scientific case for keeping the 1,000-foot-diameter radio dish as a premier and viable observatory.

"We need to conduct scientific outreach, tell our story and make our points clearly," said James Cordes, Cornell professor of astronomy and one of the meeting's organizers.

For two days, the astronomers heard more than 18 hours of scientific presentations. They discussed pulsars, superfluids and time scales; they waxed poetic on exoplanet bursts, gravitational waves, rotating radio transients, magnetic fields and searches for extraterrestrial life. This super brainstorming session sought ideas on exploiting Arecibo's broad capabilities. And, of course, the astronomers conferred about the possibility of asteroids hitting Earth.

"These presentations were descriptions of opportunities. We learned about the new telescope instrumentation that must be planned now for the future," said Robert Brown, director of the NAIC.

None of the suggestions will be implemented instantly. However, new instruments might include signal processors and wider band receivers. "Also the astronomers requested more telescope time," said Brown, noting that Arecibo is currently oversubscribed to projects.

In addition to research, Cornell astronomer Martha Haynes is looking to bolster the observatory's educational component. "We're generating this huge data set, and we need more people to help generate research from this data," she said.

To that effort, Haynes has spearheaded efforts to ensure that faculty and undergraduate students from 14 smaller colleges -- such as Colgate, Union, Humboldt State and the University of Puerto Rico -- participate in important Arecibo projects. "We have ... this great national facility, and we have a duty to help undergraduate students conduct studies at this great observatory," she said. "If we don't offer opportunities to undergraduates at smaller colleges, then astronomy will be in danger of being only for the elites."

Educational labors are serious: Under the direction of astronomy professor Rick Jenet at the University of Texas (UT) at Brownsville, a state-of-the-art, remote control room for Arecibo is being constructed on his campus. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the fictional bridge on the "Star Trek" starship Enterprise. Soon undergraduate and graduate students at UT-Brownsville and local high school students will be able to beam up orders and control Arecibo at designated times.

At the meeting, the message was clear: There is a large volume of work that can be done at Arecibo, now and many years into the future. Said Haynes, "We need to think of clever ways to ensure astronomers have access to the telescope, and we need all hands on deck to get the work done."