NASA has notified Don Campbell, Associate Director of the National
Astronomy and Ionosphere Center at Arecibo and Head of the Radar Astronomy
Group, that all funding for Arecibo radar studies will be terminated on
January 1. The large Arecibo dish is used to characterize the surface
properties and shapes of asteroids having orbits that bring them close to
Earth. It has recently discovered a satellite around one of them, which
provides information about the asteroid’s interior structure. Arecibo
radar measurements provide the most precise orbits for these objects, from
which the best assessment of their hazard to the Earth can be made. The
research is part of NASA’s program to identify, by 2008, all objects larger
than 1 km with near-Earth orbits and to characterize a portion of
them. The U.S. Congress mandated this program several years ago.

NASA currently funds a number of search and follow-up programs to find
these near-Earth objects and to determine their orbits. With no additional
funding to meet the Congressional mandate, NASA has carved $3.55M out of
other portions of its planetary astronomy research and analysis program in
FY2002. The Arecibo program is unique in the precision of its measurements
and its ability to characterize these targets, but pressure from increasing
costs in the search and recovery programs required to meet the 2008
deadline, with no increase in funding for the program to do the job, has
caused NASA to cannibalize other programs. Arecibo is the latest victim.

NASA has invested $11M in the Arecibo facility to upgrade it for carrying
out radar studies of solar system objects as distant as the moons of Saturn
(in support of the Cassini mission), but now has no funding to make the
observations. NASA research programs have been level-funded over the past
decade while costs have increased and new research programs have been
inserted. The agency has recently committed to increase funds for its
research programs at the rate of inflation and provide some new funding for
astrobiology. In such a constrained fiscal environment, NASA says that
asteroid characterization “may have to take a back seat” to NEO search and
recovery because it “can no longer do everything it is supposed to do”. In
the meantime, the rest of NASA’s observational astronomy program and
mission support suffer and a substantial investment in a national facility
is abandoned.

The Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society
believes that the Arecibo program should not be terminated to meet an
arbitrary deadline. The Congressional language says that these goals
should be achieved “to the extent practicable” not at all costs. The NASA
NEO search program is already making excellent progress. In the long term
we call on the Administration to work with the Congress to increase the
resources for non-astrobiology research programs in NASA Space Science as
they provide the knowledge base on which our solar system exploration
efforts rely.

The DPS is the world’s largest professional organization dedicated to the
exploration of the solar system.


Dr. Wesley T. Huntress, Jr.

DPS Chair


Dr. Richard P. Binzel

DPS Vice-Chair

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