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More than 70 astronomers gathered on Capitol Hill this week, not to talk about the demise of a major national research facility, but to plan for its scientific future. With optimism, the group was planning the next 15 years of research for Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory, the home of the world's largest radio telescope.
Despite proposed severe federal budget cuts for the observatory by 2011, the astronomers -- users from all over the world -- had enough faith to plan for new research and new instrumentation on the 44-year-old telescope.

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The Arecibo Observatory is part of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Centre (NAIC), a national research centre operated by Cornell University under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF is an independent federal agency whose aim is to promote scientific and engineering progress in the United States. NSF funds research and education in most fields of science and engineering. Additional support is provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
The Observatory operates on a continuous basis, 24 hours a day every day, providing observing time, electronics, computer, travel and logistic support to scientists from all over the world. All results of research are published in the scientific literature which is publicly available.
As the site of the world's largest single-dish radio telescope, the Observatory is recognised as one of the most important national centres for research in radio astronomy, planetary radar and terrestrial aeronomy. Use of the Arecibo Observatory is available on an equal, competitive basis to all scientists from throughout the world. Observing time is granted on the basis of the most promising research as ascertained by a panel of independent referees who review the proposals sent to the Observatory by interested scientists. Every year about 200 scientists visit the Observatory facilities to pursue their research project, and numerous students perform observations that lead to their master and doctoral dissertations.



The Observatory had its origins in an idea of Professor William E. Gordon, then of Cornell University, who was interested in the study of the Ionosphere. Gordon's research during the fifties led him to the idea of radar back scatter studies of the Ionosphere. Gordon's persistence culminated in the construction of the Arecibo Observatory which began in the Summer of 1960. Three years later the Arecibo Ionospheric Observatory (AIO) was in operation under the direction of Gordon. The formal opening ceremony took place on November 1, 1963.
From the beginning there were certain requirements for the site. It had to be near the equator, since there, a radar capable of studying the ionosphere could also be used to study nearby planets which pass overhead. The Arecibo site offered the advantage of being located in Karst terrain, with large limestone sinkholes which provided a natural geometry for the construction of the 305 meter reflector.
In addition an Optical Laboratory with a variety of instrumentation used for the passive study of terrestrial airglow is located at the Observatory. A lidar (Light Detection And Ranging) together with a Fabry-Perot interferometer is primarily used to measure neutral winds and temperatures of the middle atmosphere This capability complements that of the incoherent scatter radar, and gives Arecibo a unique capability in the world in terms of aeronomic research.
On October 1, 1969 the National Science Foundation took over the facility from the Department of Defence and the Observatory was made a national research centre. On September 1971 the AIO became the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Centre (NAIC).
In 1974 a new high precision surface for the reflector (the current one) was installed together with a high frequency planetary radar transmitter. The second and major upgrade to the telescope was completed in 1997. A ground screen around the perimeter of the reflector was installed to shield the feeds from ground radiation. The gregorian dome with its subreflectors and new electronics greatly increases the capability of the telescope. A new more powerful radar transmitter was also installed.
About 140 persons are employed by the Observatory providing everything from food to software in support of the operation. A scientific staff of about 16 divide their time between scientific research and assistance to visiting scientists. Engineers, computer experts, and technicians design and build new instrumentation and keep it in operation. A large maintenance staff keeps the telescope and associated instrumentation as well as the site in optimal condition. A staff of telescope operators support observing twenty-four hour per day.

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World's largest radio telescope in peril
Budget for Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory hangs in the balance
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 aluminium 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 neighbouring planets.

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The planetary radar system at the Arecibo Observatory, which Cornell manages for the National Science Foundation (NSF) through its National Astronomy and Ionosphere Centre (NAIC), is the most powerful in the world and is considered the best tool for tracking asteroids that may be on a collision course with the Earth.
But since the Arecibo radar system may lose all its funding from NSF as soon as next year.

"Let's hope that we find all the dangerous asteroids in the next few months" - Joseph Burns, Cornell astronomer.

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Engineers will travel to this Puerto Rican coastal town in coming weeks to study whether to shut down the world's largest radio telescope, which was featured in the movie "Contact" but now faces steep budget cuts, observatory officials said Thursday.
Opened in 1963, the Arecibo telescope, a 1,000-foot-wide dish set in a sinkhole amid forested hills, bounces radio waves off asteroids and charts their location, speed and course. It has recorded a number of scientific discoveries, including the first planets beyond the solar system and lakes of hydrocarbons on Saturn's moon Titan.
But fears that it could face extinction began late last year, when a panel commissioned by the National Science Foundation, a U.S. federal agency, called for deep budget cuts and said officials should consider eliminating it entirely at the end of the decade.
Observatory officials said Thursday the impending study does not mean the complex will close entirely - at least not immediately.

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At the world's largest radio telescope, astronomers searching for asteroids on a collision course with Earth are bracing for a more worldly threat: The steepest budget cuts and first layoffs since the observatory opened in 1963.
Managers are warning staff and outside astronomers to prepare for a leaner future, with fewer research projects and less telescope time available as they finish a costly repainting job amid a looming cut in U.S. government funding.

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Cornell University's Arecibo radio telescope and radar observatory could be losing up to half its federal funding about $4 million a cut that could mean job losses in both Ithaca and Puerto Rico, where the facility is based.
A report issued by the Senior Review, an advisory committee for the National Science Foundation (NSF), on Nov. 3 recommended that funding be cut for Arecibo by 25 percent over the next three years. The Senior Review also advised the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Centre (NAIC) to look for funding from outside partners to cover a 50 percent slash in funding in 2011.

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The Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico, is the largest single radio telescope in the world.



Position: 1820'37.67"N 6645'9.88"W

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When the Arecibo L-Band Feed Array (ALFA) was installed on a misty April morning two years ago, it promised to bring phenomenal new sensitivity to the Arecibo Observatory.

Now, well into an ambitious series of comprehensive sky surveys using the receiver, astronomers say ALFA is delivering spectacularly: both by fulfilling the potential of the observatory's 1990s Gregorian upgrade and ultimately by changing business as usual for researchers worldwide.

The ALFA system of detectors and associated electronics, jointly built by National Astronomy and Ionosphere Centre (NAIC) and Australian engineers, is slightly bigger than a washing machine and has seven feeds -- making it essentially a giant seven-pixel radio camera that allows researchers to image large swaths of sky and search for such time-variable phenomena as pulsars seven times more efficiently than in the past.

In just two years, ALFA has provided a wealth of new data, from comets passing near the Earth and giant clouds of gas in our own galaxy, to some of the most distant objects ever detected. It's a quiet revolution -- but Jim Cordes, Cornell professor of astronomy and one of the principal scientists behind ALFA's conception, says the improvements are unparalleled.

ALFALFA is expected to detect some 20,000 galaxies from as far away as 750 million light years over the next six years. Astronomers hope the survey will lead to the discovery of dark galaxies: never-before-observed galaxies composed largely of dark matter and hydrogen gas that could offer valuable information about the way galaxies form and evolve.

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