June 1, 2007
Cuts Threaten World’s Largest Telescope
ARECIBO, Puerto Rico -- Engineers will travel to this Puerto Rican coastal town in coming weeks to study whether to shut down the world's largest radio telescope, which was featured in the movie "Contact" but now faces steep budget cuts, observatory officials said Thursday.
Opened in 1963, the Arecibo telescope, a 1,000-foot-wide dish set in a sinkhole amid forested hills, bounces radio waves off asteroids and charts their location, speed and course. It has recorded a number of scientific discoveries, including the first planets beyond the solar system and lakes of hydrocarbons on Saturn's moon Titan.
But fears that it could face extinction began late last year, when a panel commissioned by the National Science Foundation, a U.S. federal agency, called for deep budget cuts and said officials should consider eliminating it entirely at the end of the decade.
Observatory officials said Thursday the impending study does not mean the complex will close entirely - at least not immediately.
"That's not our desire. But we are looking at this for planning purposes," said Richard Barvainis, program manager of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, which includes the Arecibo observatory.
The Arecibo telescope appeared in "Contact," a 1997 Jodie Foster movie based on the Carl Sagan book about the search for extraterrestrial life. It also gained fame in the 1995 James Bond movie "Goldeneye," in which the telescope's platform, suspended like a giant steel spider 450 feet above the dish, figured in a climactic fight scene.
The telescope's budget will plummet from $10.5 million this year to $4 million by 2010, Barvainis said, with the savings going to construct a telescope 20 times more powerful, perhaps in Australia or South Africa.
Owned by the National Science Foundation and operated by Cornell University, the Arecibo facility is receiving a makeover to persuade federal officials to keep it open, including a $3.5 million paint job to keep its steel structure from corroding in the humid Caribbean air.
Officials said that regardless of what happens with the possible budget cuts, the telescope's visitor center, which draws about 120,000 people a year, would remain open.