World's largest radio telescope under new boss

AP News
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Posted: Jun 07, 2011 9:51 PM
World's largest radio telescope under new boss

The world's largest single-dish radio telescope has received a five-year, multimillion-dollar funding commitment that new management says will allow scientists to probe the mysteries of imploded stars and maybe even lead to the detection of elusive gravitational waves predicted by Albert Einstein.

The Arecibo Observatory secured the funding this month amid looming budget cuts when the National Science Foundation awarded a $42 million contract to a consortium including California-based SRI International, a nonprofit research organization.

The consortium's takeover of the observatory is expected to occur in October. Located in Puerto Rico's lush north coast and featured in the movie "Contact" with actress Jodie Foster, the 1,000-foot-wide (305-meter-wide) telescope has been operated by Cornell University since 1963.

SRI's partners on the project include the Universities Space Research Association, a Maryland-based nonprofit corporation founded under the National Academy of Sciences.

"We're still the most sensitive telescope in the world," Robert Kerr, SRI's director-designate for the observatory, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "That has allowed a rich diversity of research."

The observatory will launch a $2 million high-frequency facility later this year, only the second of its kind in the Western Hemisphere, Kerr said. It is expected to emit high-frequency waves that will help scientists study the ionosphere, the upper part of the atmosphere that affects how radio waves are transmitted on Earth.

"It's a very unique laboratory," he said.

Scientists also expect to use the radio telescope to react more quickly to solar storms and analyze how they impact weather at the altitude of satellites, he said.

The radio telescope will search within and beyond the Milky Way galaxy for objects including asteroids and pulsars, which are the remains of stars at least three times the mass of the sun. It will also continue to research the remains of massive stars that imploded, said Don Kniffen, the association's vice president for science.

"It is the premier facility for pulsar observations," he said.

Pulsars can be used to look for gravitational waves, one of the predictions of Einstein's general relativity theory. Kniffen said such a discovery is possible within five to 10 years.

The telescope also will search for neutral hydrogen, which can reveal how other cosmic structures are formed and was used to trace the Milky Way's spiral shape, he said.

A new dish installed at the observatory that will soon be connected to other dishes worldwide also will help scientists see objects more clearly, he said.

The observatory will run on a $10.7 million budget for fiscal year 2011. By 2012, the observatory anticipates an $8.7 million budget.

The National Science Foundation provides the majority of the observatory's funding, and foundation officials had threatened to reduce its contribution to the observatory's budget to $4 million.

"I think that we have put together a plan to attract enough new funding for Arecibo that we will be able to mitigate that," Kniffen said. "This is such a political season for budget cuts and all, that you have no idea where it's going to end up."

SRI's partners also include the Metropolitan University in San Juan and the University of Puerto Rico. As a result, students and teachers will have more access to the observatory and can launch their own investigations, said Carlos Padin, dean of the Metropolitan University's environmental affairs school.

The radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory identified the first planets beyond our solar system, and it once sent a three-minute broadcast to the Hercules constellation in 1974 in a quest to contact alien civilizations.

The observatory opened in 1963, and its visitor center draws about 120,000 people a year.

The telescope's platform also was featured in the 1995 James Bond movie "GoldenEye."