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Correction to This Article
In some Sept. 9 editions, the article said that the reflective aluminum bowl of the radio telescope is suspended by cables strung from 300-foot towers. An antenna array is suspended by cables above the bowl.

Radio Telescope And Its Budget Hang in the Balance

Arecibo Observatory, keeping an eye on the cosmos.
Arecibo Observatory, keeping an eye on the cosmos. (Arecibo Observatory)

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By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 9, 2007

ARECIBO, Puerto Rico -- In the tangled forests of Puerto Rico's steamy interior, suspended by steel cables strung from 300-foot towers, an array of antennas hangs above an aluminum bowl 1,000 feet in diameter that gazes into space.

Arecibo Observatory, the largest and most sensitive radio telescope on Earth, looks like a secret outpost built by aliens. In fact, one of its missions is to search the galactic frontier for signs of intelligent life -- a sci-fi goal that landed it a leading role in the Jodie Foster movie "Contact" and cameos in a James Bond flick.

But among astronomers, Arecibo is an icon of hard science. Its instruments have netted a decades-long string of discoveries about the structure and evolution of the universe. Its high-powered radar has mapped in exquisite detail the surfaces and interiors of neighboring planets.

And it is the only facility on the planet able to track asteroids with enough precision to tell which ones might plow into Earth -- a disaster that could cause as many as a billion deaths and that experts say is preventable with enough warning.

Yet, for want of a few million dollars, the future for Arecibo appears grim.

The National Science Foundation, which has long funded the dish, has told the Cornell University-operated facility that it will have to close if it cannot find outside sources for half of its already reduced $8 million budget in the next three years -- an ultimatum that has sent ripples of despair through the scientific community.

The squeeze is part of a larger effort to free up money for new ventures in astronomy -- projects that even Arecibo's depressed staff agrees ought to be launched. But many astronomers say that if Arecibo succumbs, the cause of death will be politics, not a lack of good science.

They note that states with major observatories, such as New Mexico and West Virginia, have senators famous for their power over purse strings, some of whom are already gearing up to fight proposed cuts. By contrast, Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, has no senators. And its representative in the House, Resident Commissioner Luis G. Fortu?o (R), does not have a vote.

"That makes a big difference," Fortu?o said, adding that recent pleas by the observatory's director for financial help from Puerto Rico's government struck him as paradoxical, given the island's budget woes. Last summer, the government shut down temporarily for lack of funds. The average income in Puerto Rico is half that in the poorest American state.

Astronomers from around the country are meeting in Washington this week to highlight the many scientific mysteries that Arecibo is in a unique position to plumb, but the effort may be "too little, too late," said Daniel Altschuler, a professor of physics at the University of Puerto Rico who was Arecibo's director for 12 years.

"I don't see any effective move toward saving Arecibo," said Altschuler, who calls the observatory "a monument to man's curiosity."

"But to let it die is just a tragedy," he said.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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