Nov. 9, 2007

Campbell, Planetary Society urge Congress to save Arecibo

As part of a continuing effort to save the Arecibo Observatory from fatal budget cuts, Cornell astronomy professor Donald Campbell testified before Congress Nov. 8 on the importance of the telescope's radar system for the identification and tracking of potentially hazardous near-Earth objects (NEOs).

On the same day, the Planetary Society, a space advocacy organization co-founded by the late Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan, issued a statement to Congress in support of the planetary radar system at Arecibo and its research. "If some object out there really is on a collision course with Earth, and we don't have the means to track it properly," the statement said, "the price we would pay would be astronomical."

The observatory's future has been in jeopardy since November 2006, when an advisory panel to the Division of Astronomical Sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF) recommended that its operating funds be reduced to $8 million from $10.5 million over three years and then halved to $4 million in 2011. If the observatory failed to raise funds from external sources to make up the difference, it would be forced to close.

In October, U.S. Rep. Luis Fortuño (R-Puerto Rico) and Dana Rohrabacher (R- Calif.) introduced legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to ensure continued operation of Arecibo.

Campbell was among five scientists to address the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics of the House Committee on Science and Technology. He discussed the role of Arecibo's radar system, which is one of only two high-powered radars in the world used for studying solar system bodies, on characterizing NEOs and their potential threat to Earth.

Arecibo's radar is over 20 times more sensitive than its counterpart, NASA's Deep Space Network 70-meter antenna at Goldstone, Calif., Campbell noted. But because it is less maneuverable, both systems are vital and complementary.

"The more we know about NEOs in general and about specific ones that pose a threat to Earth, the easier it will be to design effective mitigation strategies," said Campbell. "NEOs form a very diverse population encompassing a large range of sizes, shapes, rotation states, densities, internal structure and binary nature."

Radar provides the best way to survey and categorize such objects, he said. "For an object that we know poses a direct threat to Earth, radar can provide vital input to mitigation planning, including planning for any precursor space mission."

Campbell also noted Arecibo's unique role in supporting research in radio astronomy, radar planetary studies (including the study of NEOs) and ionosphere physics, as well as in education and outreach activities.

"If the Arecibo radar system is decommissioned ... a tremendous amount of basic science related to NEOs and other solar system bodies would be lost," he said.

In its concurrent statement, the Planetary Society called the Senior Review recommendation "a misguided attempt to free up funding for new projects that do not yet exist."

Arecibo is part of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, a national research center operated by Cornell under a cooperative agreement with the NSF.