If you’ve ever seen the movie GoldenEye (or played the classic N64 game), you’re undoubtedly familiar with Arecibo. The massive structure opened in 1963, and the observatory’s 1,000-foot radio telescope was the world’s largest for more than 50 years.
Built in a giant sinkhole in the Puerto Rican jungle, the 900-ton platform suspended 450 feet over a spherical reflector can detect radio waves from distant galaxies and also monitor nearby asteroids zooming past Earth.
Originally designed to study the ionosphere, the telescope has had a variety of roles in its decades-long career. The military hoped to use it to track Soviet ICBMs during the Cold War, and in 1974 it sent out a “postcard” to a star cluster 21,000 light years away as one of the first SETI endeavors. A study of binary pulsars using the telescope proved the existence of gravitational waves and earned physicists Russel Hulse and Joseph Taylor a Nobel Prize in 1993.
In recent years, however, the future of Arecibo has been uncertain. The National Science Foundation (NSF), which funds the majority of Arecibo’s annual $12 million budget, began looking at ways to decommission the structure due to budgetary constraints.
Former director of the observatory Robert Kerr told National Geographic that environmental impact studies could signal the beginning of the end. “It appears that NSF is following the formal process established, in part, by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, for decommissioning of a federal facility,” he said. “The good folks at Arecibo are scared to death.”
However, the University of Central Florida has come to the rescue, announcing that it will be taking over operation and management of the facility along with two international partners. “UCF’s oversight of this crucial resource further solidifies our university as a leader in space-related research,” said UCF President John C. Hitt. “This agreement, made possible through partnerships, also ensures that the observatory will continue to make significant contributions to space science and mankind.”
The five-year $20 million agreement is expected to take effect on April 1. The NSF contribution will decrease over time, from approximately $8 million per year to approximately $2 million per year by 2022.
“The Arecibo Observatory is a very special place. It is currently the leading research facility in the areas of radio astronomy, planetary sciences, and space atmospheric science in the world,” said director Francisco Córdova, who will continue to fill that position under the new management. “We are very excited about this new collaboration. I believe together we can do great things.”
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