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Uncertain Future for Earth’s Biggest Telescope

4 Jun 2016, 21:45 UTC
Uncertain Future for Earth’s Biggest Telescope NSF/Wikimedia
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The Arecibo Observatory, easily recognizable from feature films and a symbol of the search for extraterrestrial life, may not be around for much longer. A harsh funding climate is forcing the National Science Foundation to make some hard decisions about which facilities to keep around. (NSF/Wikimedia)
Tucked into a sinkhole in the Puerto Rican rainforest, the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope scans the skies for signs of distant galaxies, elusive gravitational waves, and the murmurs of extraterrestrial civilizations nearly 24 hours a day. For more than a half-century, whether those waves traveled to Earth from the far reaches of our universe or much closer to home, the Arecibo Observatory has been there to catch them.
But the enormous telescope, with a dish that stretches 1,000 feet across, may not be around for much longer.
On May 23, the National Science Foundation, which funds the majority of Arecibo’s annual $12 million budget, published a notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement related to the observatory’s future.
That might sound innocuous – after all, isn’t it a good idea to study the context in which our science facilities exist? Yet it’s anything but benign. Putting that environmental assessment together ...

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