Oct. 3, 2007

Congress gets bill to save Arecibo Observatory

Congressmen Luis Fortuño of Puerto Rico and Dana Rohrabacher of California have introduced legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to ensure continued operation of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. They want to guarantee future federal funding for the astronomical and radar-imaging facility.

"The bill is an appeal for the NSF [National Science Foundation] and NASA to get together and talk about how they might jointly work to maintain the science program at Arecibo," said Robert Brown, director of Cornell's National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, which manages the facility for the NSF. Brown, also an adjunct professor of astronomy at Cornell, said: "It doesn't ask for something new; rather, it seeks to maintain what goes on at the moment. The observatory is really an icon to the people of Puerto Rico -- it allows young people to see ... that Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans can be successful scientifically on a world stage."

The observatory is facing severe federal budget cuts by 2011 as the result of an NSF Senior Review panel recommendation last year. The observatory has reduced its operating budget from $10 million to $8 million since last year, and funding will remain level over the next three years.

Fortuño and others in Congress have also written to the NSF seeking reconsideration of the recommended budget cuts. Fortuño noted that the radio astronomy and radar capabilities of the facility are critical to detection and tracking of near-Earth objects (NEOs), including asteroids that could pose a hazard of catastrophic destruction and loss of life.

The legislation introduced by Fortuño and Rohrabacher would mandate the continued operation of the facility and would support the mission of NASA with respect to NEOs, as well as research for scientific and educational purposes important to Puerto Rico and the rest of the nation.

Fortuño said: "Nobel Prize-winning research has been conducted at Arecibo in the past and may be again in the future, unless the observatory is closed for short-sighted reasons. Maintaining this facility is an investment in our nation's future. The cost is small compared to the benefits for America and mankind."

Said Rohrabacher: "Arecibo is a key resource in understanding the characteristics of potentially hazardous asteroids and comets so that they can be dealt with effectively. There is no room for error when it comes to eliminating a threat that could kill millions."