Congress Gives NSF Two Months to Provide Answers on Arecibo

Congress Gives NSF Two Months to Provide Answers on Arecibo

The FY2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act released today directs the National Science Foundation (NSF) to provide answers on what happened to the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico and what comes next. Arecibo collapsed last month after supporting cables gave way, but the underlying cause is still being investigated.

The 305-meter dish was the centerpiece of the Arecibo Observatory (AO) owned by NSF and managed under contract by the University of Central Florida (UCF). A 12-meter telescope and a LIDAR facility remain operational along with a visitor and education center.

NSF is funded in the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill.  For FY2021, all 12 regular appropriations bills, including CJS, are combined into the Consolidated Appropriations Bill, 2021. The texts of the bill and explanatory report were released this afternoon and expected to pass Congress imminently as it races to conclude its business before Christmas. The appropriations bill is merged with a COVID-relief package that will continue benefits that otherwise will expire in coming days.

UPDATE, December 22, 12:10 am ET:  The House and Senate passed the Consolidated Appropriations bill December 21, but it cleared the Senate just before midnight. The House Rule providing for consideration of the bill reportedly included a 7-day extension to the CR in order to give Congress time to enroll the bill, checking for typographical errors, for example, before sending it to the President.

Arecibo radio telescope in better days.

Nestled in the hills of Puerto Rico, the Arecibo radio telescope began operation in 1963. The scientific instruments for studying the universe in radio wavelengths were on a 900-ton platform suspended by cables over the huge dish.

In August 2020, a support cable came out of its socket and landed on the dish. UCF brought in a team of engineers to determine what happened and develop a repair plan. On November 6, however, one of the main cables supporting the platform broke and the engineers warned the facility was unstable and in damage of catastrophic collapse. On November 19, NSF announced it would not attempt to repair it and the telescope would be decommissioned.

The engineers’ warning proved prophetic on December 1 when the platform fell onto the dish, destroying everything.

Remnants of Arecibo after the December 1 collapse.

No one was hurt because keep-out zones had already been established.

The telescope not only was important to the scientific community, but to Puerto Rico. NSF said it recognized Arecibo’s “cultural and economic significance” and how it “serves as an inspiration for Puerto Ricans considering education and employment in STEM,” a reference to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Today, Congress directed NSF to report within 60 days of the appropriations bill’s enactment on what happened, how the debris will be removed in a safe and environmentally sound manner, how the other facilities at Arecibo will be preserved, and what process will be used to determine whether to establish “comparable technology” at the site and associated cost estimates.

Arecibo Observatory (AO).-The significant loss caused by the collapse of the 305-meter radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, is devastating. During its 57 years in operation, the telescope was an integral part of U.S. capabilities to advance scientific research and served as an iconic, beloved site for the residents of Puerto Rico and the scientific community. With this in mind and keeping safety as the number one priority, NSF is directed to report to the Committees within 60 days of enactment of this Act on the causes and extent of the damage, the plan to remove debris in a safe and environmentally sound way, the preservation of the associated AO facilities and surrounding areas, and the process for determining whether to establish comparable technology at the site, along with any associated cost estimates. NSF shall keep the Committees informed of any other activities related to this facility.

NASA used Arecibo to characterize known asteroids, but said a radio telescope at its Goldstone, CA site that recently returned to full operations can fulfill that need.

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