Arecibo Observatory
Arecibo Observatory. Credit: NAIC - Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF

WASHINGTON — The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) is seeking partners to help fund a famous radio telescope partially funded by NASA, a process that has raised concerns among astronomers about the observatory’s future.

In an Oct. 26 “Dear Colleague” letter, the NSF said it was seeking concepts for continued operation of the Arecibo Observatory, a radio telescope whose 305-meter dish is the largest in the world. The NSF is particularly interested in proposals from organizations that could take over some or all of the cost of operating the observatory.

The NSF stated in its letter that it was seeking “viable concepts for the future of the Arecibo Observatory, specifically including strategies and goals for continued operations that involve a substantially reduced funding commitment from NSF.” It requested proposals from interested organizations, including a “conceptual business, financial, and managerial outline,” by the end of this year.

The NSF’s letter has some scientists worried that if the agency does not receive a satisfactory response, it may move to shut down the observatory after the current five-year contract to manage Arecibo expires in September 2016. That contract is held by a consortium that includes SRI International, Universities Space Research Association and Universidad Metropolitana, a Puerto Rican university.

NSF officials emphasized they want to find some solution to keep Arecibo open. “The last thing we want see is for Arecibo to close,” Patricia Knezek, deputy division director of the NSF’s division of astronomical sciences, said during a policy panel at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences Nov. 9.

However, Knezek emphasized that her division’s budget, which has not increased significantly in recent years, is being squeezed by the operations costs of the various observatories it supports. Since 2011, she said, the fraction of the division’s budget supporting facilities has increased from 56 to 60 percent. That has forced the NSF to curtail some research grants.

Patricia Knezek, deputy division director of the NSF’s division of astronomical sciences. Credit: AAS
“The last thing we want see is for Arecibo to close,” said Patricia Knezek, deputy division director of the NSF’s division of astronomical sciences. Credit: AAS

Knezek added that, under current projections, the share of the division’s budget going to facilities would grow to 70 percent by 2019. That is a key reason the NSF has been pursuing a “divestment” strategy in the last several years, looking to hand over some older observatories to universities or other organizations and, if that is not possible, closing them.

Arecibo’s future is complicated by its complex funding structure. Two NSF divisions, astronomy and geosciences, cover two-thirds of the observatory’s annual budget of about $12 million. The rest comes from NASA, which funds Arecibo through its Near Earth Objects program to support its use as a planetary radar, helping characterize nearby asteroids.

“It is something that we are all very invested in,” she said, “but it is a complicated situation to work out how we’re going to move into the future.”

Knezek added that any future agreement with partners to run the observatory would likely have to include additional money to maintain the observatory, which opened in 1963. “The difficulty with Arecibo is that we are now at the point where the funding we are able to supply them, between the NSF and NASA, is almost sub-critical to keep it operating,” she said.

A further complication, raised by some scientists attending the panel session, is the potential role of private funding. Arecibo was not initially included in Breakthrough Listen, a $100 million search for extraterrestrial intelligence initiative announced in July by a private foundation, Breakthrough Initiatives. Some, including former observatory Director Richard Kerr, said the NSF told Arecibo that any private funding it took could jeopardize its government funding.

Knezek said the NSF was not directly involved in negotiations involving private use of Arecibo. The observatory was not included in the original Breakthrough Listen announcement because negotiations started late and were still in progress at the time of the announcement. “That did not preclude them from continuing to have discussions,” she said.

Others involved in the discussions said that Breakthrough Initiatives initially was not interested in using Arecibo, then changed its mind and started discussions late in the planning leading up to the announcement. Those discussions will resume in the near future, although they may be different in scope and value than the original negotiations.

NSF officials said they are interested in finding any kind of partnership, including those that would not totally replace NSF, to lessen the cost to the agency of running the observatory. “Our worst outcome would be not to have it continue to do great science,” Knezek said.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...