Sept. 29, 2009

Report calls Arecibo Observatory 'uniquely powerful' for detecting near-Earth objects

The Arecibo Observatory provides "unmatched precision and accuracy" in detecting asteroids or comets that could hit the Earth, says a report by the National Academy of Sciences. That statement could help secure the observatory's future.

The world-famous, Cornell-run radio telescope's unsurpassed capabilities for taking precise, clear pictures of these near-earth objects (NEOs) are laid out plainly in the recently released interim report, "Near-Earth Object Surveys and Hazard Mitigation Strategies." Mandated by Congress in 2008, the report was written by a survey committee appointed by the National Research Council, which is the operational arm of the National Academy of Sciences. A final report is due out in December.

Although Earth has been hit by asteroids and comets for billions of years, it was suggested in the 1980s that a massive asteroid impact had wiped out the dinosaurs. Since then, scientists have considered the effects -- and possible widespread extinction -- of future impacts.

The report's positive review of Arecibo's role in NEO detection and imaging was welcome news for Cornell officials as they await a decision by the National Science Foundation (NSF) on funding for the observatory, as well as whether they'll be allowed to continue operating the facility via a long-held cooperative agreement with the NSF. The agency has announced it will require all institutions, including Cornell, to compete for the right to operate Arecibo through an ongoing Request for Proposal process.

Arecibo's future has been clouded since November 2006, when the Senior Review, an advisory panel to NSF's Division of Astronomical Sciences, recommended that the facility's operating budget be reduced to $8 million from $10.5 million over three years, and then halved to $4 million in 2011. If such a drastic reduction did take place, it could mean Arecibo would have to close.

Meanwhile, NASA is facing a 2005 Congressional mandate, according to the report, of discovering 90 percent of all NEOs that are 140 meters (almost .09 miles) in diameter or greater, by 2020. Current NASA surveys are not sufficient to meet this goal, the report says.

The glowing review of Arecibo's importance to NASA's NEO detection mitigation might be a key push for Arecibo staying open for the foreseeable future.

"If the survey committee had not come out that strongly, it would have virtually ruled out any funding," said Don Campbell, director of Arecibo's parent organization, the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center. "[The report] was a necessary, but not sufficient condition to get funding from either NASA or NSF."

Despite NASA's insistence that it will not provide operational funding for an NSF facility, Campbell remains optimistic that, eventually, there will be funding for Arecibo's NEO program.

"The Arecibo planetary radar system provides by far the best imagery and tracking data for NEOs, short of sending a spacecraft," Campbell said. "It is hard to imagine that we will deliberately give up such a capability."

Only time will tell what practical impact the report will have with regard to funding for Arecibo, Campbell said. In the meantime, the NSF has not yet released budget figures for the facility for fiscal year 2011.