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Powerful telescope may be closed

Private funding sources sought

The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the world's largest and most sensitive radio telescope, is able to track asteroids. The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the world's largest and most sensitive radio telescope, is able to track asteroids. (Arecibo Observatory)

ARECIBO, Puerto Rico - In the tangled forests of Puerto Rico's steamy interior, suspended by steel cables strung from 300-foot towers, an array of antennas hangs above an aluminum bowl 1,000 feet in diameter that gazes into space.

Arecibo Observatory, the largest and most sensitive radio telescope on Earth, looks like a secret outpost built by aliens. In fact, one of its missions is to search the galactic frontier for signs of intelligent life - a sci-fi goal that landed it a leading role in the Jodie Foster movie "Contact" and cameos in a James Bond flick.

But among astronomers, Arecibo is an icon of hard science. Its instruments have netted a decades-long string of discoveries about the structure and evolution of the universe. Its high-powered radar has mapped in exquisite detail the surfaces and interiors of neighboring planets.

And it is the only facility on the planet able to track asteroids with enough precision to tell which ones might plow into Earth - a disaster that could cause as many as a billion deaths and that experts say is preventable with enough warning.

Yet, for want of a few million dollars, the future for Arecibo appears grim.

The National Science Foundation, which has long funded the dish, has told the Cornell University-operated facility that it will have to close if it cannot find outside sources for half of its already reduced $8 million budget in the next three years - an ultimatum that has sent ripples of despair through the scientific community.

The squeeze is part of a larger effort to free up money for new ventures in astronomy - projects that even Arecibo's staff agrees should be launched. But many astronomers say that if Arecibo succumbs, the cause of death will be politics, not a lack of good science.

They note that states with major observatories, such as New Mexico and West Virginia, have senators famous for their power over purse strings. By contrast, Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, has no senators. And its representative in the House, Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño, does not have a vote.

"That makes a big difference," Fortuño said, adding that recent pleas by the observatory's director for financial help from Puerto Rico's government struck him as paradoxical, given the island's budget woes. Last summer, the government shut down temporarily for lack of funds. The average income in Puerto Rico is half that in the poorest American state.

Astronomers from around the country met in Washington last week to highlight the many scientific mysteries that Arecibo is in a unique position to plumb, but the effort may be "too little, too late," said Daniel Altschuler, a professor of physics at the University of Puerto Rico who was Arecibo's director for 12 years.

"I don't see any effective move toward saving Arecibo," said Altschuler, who calls the observatory "a monument to man's curiosity."

"But to let it die is just a tragedy," he said.

A visit to Arecibo is in many respects a voyage through time. It's not just the jarring contrast between the high-tech receiver and the untamed jungle around it, or the fact that the signals it detects from the edges of the universe are snapshots of events that happened 10 billion years ago, not long after the big bang.

The control room that overlooks the array, built in the 1960s, still has some of its original control panels featuring big black plastic knobs and gauges reminiscent of Flash Gordon movies. Yet those throwbacks are surrounded by ceiling-high banks of equipment of astonishing sophistication, including atomic clocks that measure incoming signals to the million-billionth of a second.

The primary aim is to detect radio waves from sources throughout the Milky Way and beyond.

As scientists discovered in the 1930s, atomic particles whizzing around in space can emit radio waves of various forms and intensities. Those waves - which, unlike visible light and other kinds of electromagnetic energy, easily penetrate cosmic dust and Earth's atmosphere - tell scientists what kinds of matter and energy are out there and how they are behaving.

That kind of information pulls the veil from how the universe matured (unevenly, with lumps of unimaginable density and vast expanses far emptier than any vacuum on Earth); what it is made of (about 95 percent is "dark energy" and "dark matter," components that scientists know virtually nothing about); and what holds it all together (nobody understands what gravity really is).

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