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Puerto Rico commits $8 million to rebuild Arecibo telescope

It likely won't be enough, but it's a start.
This aerial view shows the damage at the Arecibo Observatory after one of the main cables holding the receiver broke in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, on December 1, 2020. - The radio telescope in Puerto Rico, which once starred in a James Bond film, collapsed Tuesday when its 900-ton receiver platform fell 450 feet (140 meters) and smashed onto the radio dish below. (Photo by Ricardo ARDUENGO / AFP) (Photo by RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP via Getty Images)
Jon Fingas
Jon Fingas|@jonfingas|December 31, 2020 10:54 AM

There’s a glimmer of hope for the collapsed Arecibo Observatory telescope as 2020 draws to a close. El Nuevo Dia reports that Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez has signed an executive order approving $8 million to help rebuild the radio telescope. Its reconstruction is important as a matter of “public policy” and reestablishing the Observatory as a “world-class educational center,” the Governor’s office said.

The National Science Foundation said it would tear down the Observatory as repairs would be too dangerous, although that doesn’t rule out building a new structure in its place.

We wouldn’t see this as more than a start. The $8 million in funding is unlikely to come anywhere close to reconstructing the telescope. We’ve asked the NSF for comment on the financial pledge, but it’s safe to presume a revival would require additional help.

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Still, the funds represent an important step. They signal the territory’s commitment to Arecibo and its space studies despite the loss. They might also spur some in the US government to devote the extra funding needed to resurrect the Observatory. Don’t be surprised if 2021 is a brighter year for the facility, even if any rebuilding effort is likely to take much longer.

Update, 12/31/2020, 3:54pm ET:

In a statement to Engadget, an NSF spokesperson said:

NSF’s process for funding and constructing large-scale infrastructure, including telescopes, is a well-established, multi-year procedure that involves assessing the needs of the scientific community, receiving input from researchers and other stakeholders, considering environmental and cultural impacts, and working with Congress. As the Arecibo Observatory’s 305-meter telescope only recently collapsed, NSF cannot comment on any potential future plans at this time. However, we will continue to work with Congress on the issue, including complying with language accompanying the new omnibus spending package.

NSF emphasizes that the observatory is not closing. Research involving archived data from the 305-meter telescope will continue and NSF is looking for ways to restore operations with the observatory’s other infrastructure as soon as possible, including the 12-meter telescope and LIDAR facilities. NSF will continue the work of clearing and securing the site of the 305-meter telescope and looks forward to working with Puerto Rico to find new ways to support the scientific community and the local community.

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Puerto Rico commits $8 million to rebuild Arecibo telescope