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.
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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)

If Arecibo's astronomy budget is killed, the atmospheric center would have to close, too.

Also ignored was Arecibo's planetary radar system -- the most powerful in the world -- which in the past year has made major discoveries about the surface of the moon, the core of Mercury and the forces that affect asteroids as they hurtle through space.

Perhaps most painful was the apparent lack of weight accorded to Arecibo's educational mission, said Jos? Alonso, chief of the self-supporting visitor center. Arecibo holds science camps for teachers and welcomes more than 100,000 guests a year, including 25,000 schoolchildren.

"Inspiration is something not so easy to measure," said Alonso, an astronomer turned educator. "Children run around, and it may not be obvious right away. But five years from now, some of them will say, 'Oh, I remember that telescope, and I want to study that.' "

He and others noted with some irony that one of NSF's core missions is to attract Hispanics and other minorities to science.

Many astronomers have said that the senior review was ordered a few years ago on the assumption that NSF's budget would be flat. In fact, it has been growing steadily and, under President Bush's American Competitiveness Initiative, is now in line to be doubled. That justifies congressional intervention, supporters say.

"Earmarks get a bad rap, but this is a case when Congress should step up to prevent Arecibo's demise," said Louis D. Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, a Pasadena, Calif.-based nonprofit that advocates for space exploration.

Van Citters, the foundation's astronomy chief, acknowledged that the financial pressure seems to be easing and that the cost of decommissioning Arecibo could be far higher than the cost of operating it for many years. But he said the call for cuts, including the possible closure of the Very Long Baseline Array and Arecibo, was "prudent planning."

Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) is pushing to save the Very Long Baseline Array. In early August, he fired off a letter to NSF Director Arden Bement decrying the cutback. They are scheduled to meet this month, a Domenici spokesman said.

In West Virginia, the senior review called for cuts at the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, but Jenny Thalheimer, spokeswoman for the Democratic senator from West Virginia, said she does not anticipate problems.

"In the past, there have been some battles with NSF, but Byrd always managed to get it funded," Thalheimer said.

Arecibo does have a voice on Capitol Hill. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), an advocate for better tracking of near-Earth asteroids, has requested a hearing to highlight the need for good warning systems.

With advance notice, scientists say, they could either blast the approaching object off track or send up a massive, expendable spacecraft to ride alongside it, providing just enough gravitational force to nudge it off course.

If NSF will not cover Arecibo's budget gap, Rohrabacher said, NASA should.

"There are things in the NASA budget that are far less defensible than identifying and tracking objects coming from space that could cause colossal loss of lives on our planet," Rohrabacher said.

Driving beneath the giant dish in a rickety Jeep, director Kerr is not counting on Congress. So he continues to brainstorm.

Don't laugh, he said, but lately he has been thinking about naming rights.

"Imagine the word 'Google' painted across that 19-acre dish," Kerr said. "What do you think that would be worth?"


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