NSF Rejects Proposal to Rebuild Arecibo Observatory

The National Scientific Foundation (NSF) will not rebuild Puerto Rico’s iconic Arecibo Observatory. Instead, it will build a STEM education center that will open in 2023.

Scientists used Arecibo Observatory for planetary radar, atmospheric studies, and radio astronomy. It was famously featured in the movie Contact, staring Jodie Foster. The observatory collapsed and damaged its dish when its support cables snapped in 2020.

The NSF decided to accept an investigator’s recommendation to decommission Arecibo Observatory rather than repair it. The investigator said that the NSF did a good job of maintaining the observatory over its 57-year lifespan, but the support cables showed signs of environmental damage, paint degradations, and wire breaks. The wires especially had a history of slipping out of their sockets and on-site staff never received any guidance on monitoring the problem.

Other instruments, like a 40-foot-wide radio dish and a lidar system, remain operational. However, the NSF does not plan to provide long-term funding for them.

“We were worried that it could be even worse than this, that they might say, ‘OK, just close down everything,'” said Abel Méndez, an astronomer at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo who used the observatory for research.

A Tour of Arecibo Observatory

NSF May Hesitate to Invest in Instrumentation at Storm-Plagued Island

Scientists might have hoped for more despite Puerto Rico getting hit by hurricanes and tropical storms with higher frequency than the NSF probably likes. Most recently, Hurricane Fiona knocked out power and caused severe flash flooding throughout Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rican government said Fiona killed at least two people. A previous storm, Hurricane Maria, killed as many as 3,000 people on the island.

Considering the severity and frequency of storms – and a declining population as people move away from the storm-plagued island – the NSF may not be eager to sink a lot of money into repairing or replacing scientific equipment at Arecibo Observatory. Instead, it will focus on educational outreach.

The new STEM education center will “expand upon existing education and outreach opportunities currently in place at the Arecibo Observatory site, while also implementing new STEM programs and initiatives,” a statement issued by the NSF said.

The statement went on to call for proposals for managing education, STEM research, and outreach activities at the center. It will hire a contractor to maintain the education center’s grounds and facilities that will include a learning center, the Ángel Ramos Science and Visitor’s center, exhibition space, laboratory space, auditorium, cafeteria, office space, and dormitories.

The contractor’s work will not include providing support for the remaining scientific instruments at the Arecibo site. Science teams can submit proposals, which the NSF says must fall in line with the new role of the Arecibo education center.

The NSF says the new function of the Arecibo facility will comply with the newly passed CHIPS and Science Act. This act calls on the NSF to “explore opportunities for strengthening and expanding the role of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico through education, outreach, and diversity programs, and future research capabilities and technology at the site.”

Congress created the National Scientific Foundation (NSF) in 1950 to “promote the progress of science” and “advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare.” Congress also mandated enhancements to national security in the NSF’s charter. Congress earmarked $8.8 billion for the NSF’s FY 2022 budget, which accounts for 25% of the United States’ spending on scientific research. Its leadership includes a director and the 24-member National Science Board.