NSF renews Cornell's Arecibo contract

04/05/05

ITHACA, N.Y. -- The National Science Foundation (NSF) has renewed Cornell University's management contract for the operation of Arecibo Observatory, the world's largest and most-sensitive single-dish radio/radar telescope. A Puerto Rican landmark, the huge telescope is famous as the locale for several movies, including the James Bond film "GoldenEye" and the movie version of Carl Sagan's Contact .

The contract, with the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC) at Cornell -- which runs until March 31, 2010 -- is for approximately $70 million, making the NAIC the second-largest federally funded research center on campus. NAIC has managed the observatory for the past 34 years.

The award was approved March 30 by the National Science Board, which establishes NSF policies, following a 15-monthlong competition for management of the observatory with the Universities Space Research Association, created by the National Academy of Science in 1969 and largely funded by NASA.

"We are very pleased with the confidence that the NSF has shown in supporting Cornell's proposal to continue its management of NAIC, and we welcome the challenge to develop further the scientific research capabilities at the observatory," said Bob Brown, director of NAIC, who spends 25 percent of his time at Arecibo.

NAIC was created by Cornell in 1971 as a national center for radio science to operate and manage the Arecibo Observatory for the NSF. The 1,000-foot-diameter (305 meters) Arecibo telescope was completed in 1963 at the initiative of Cornell electrical engineering professor William E. Gordon.

The center provides access to state-of-the-art observing facilities at Arecibo for scientists in radio astronomy, solar system radar astronomy and atmospheric studies.

Under NAIC management over the past 33 years, the telescope has recorded many scientific discoveries, including the first planets beyond the solar system, the first millisecond and binary pulsars, and lakes of hydrocarbons on Saturn's moon Titan. Arecibo researchers also have mapped ice deposits on Mercury.

Operating with 11 people at Cornell in Ithaca and a staff of 136 at the observatory in Puerto Rico, NAIC administers observing time to more than 200 telescope users annually in the astronomy and aeronomy academic communities. An extensive program of educational and public outreach programs complement the NAIC research program. Educational initiatives include support for graduate students, maintenance of an active NSF-funded research experiences for undergraduates program and involvement in a similar program for teachers. The Angel Ramos Visitor Center at the observatory, funded through gifts to Cornell by the Angel Ramos Foundation, receives more than 120,000 public visitors a year and is the focus for the NAIC public outreach program.

In the past five years, the number of students and researchers whose research is actually scheduled on the telescope has grown by 24 percent. In the near term, the number of users is expected to increase even further, partly arising from the start of "commensal" observing, or simultaneous observations by two scientific groups working to achieve two difference science objectives. Multiplexing observing time in this manner can double or triple the number of users.

An even greater number of new users, said Brown, will be signing on for the telescope's new "eye on the sky" that is turning the huge dish into the equivalent of a 7-pixel radio camera. The device, the size of a washing machine, is called ALFA (for Arecibo L-Band Feed Array) and is essentially a camera for making radio pictures of the sky. ALFA will conduct large-scale sky surveys with unprecedented sensitivity, enabling astronomers to collect data seven times faster than at present, giving the telescope an even broader scientific capability.

To date, 166 researchers have signed on for ALFA's galactic, extragalactic and pulsar survey teams. Brown notes that the intention is to use ALFA to gain still more partnerships in the U.S. academic research community.

Many of these users perform their observations remotely from their home institutions using the Control Interface Module for Arecibo (CIMA), the primary "graphic user interface" used to control the telescope. CIMA can be accessed on the Web, making it possible for scientists to use the telescope from any location in the world with an Internet connection. NAIC is working to refine this remote observing capability even further.

The director also emphasizes NAIC's intention to exploit fully the educational value and broader impact of the observatory, citing Arecibo's Office for the Public Understanding of Science (OPUS), a collaboration being developed jointly by NAIC and universities with a significant population of underserved minority students. Initially, the partner universities are in Puerto Rico.

"With a unique telescope, a strong program of forefront research, partnerships with academic researchers in place to develop future research instrumentation, and the support of the people and institutions in Puerto Rico, all of us at Cornell/NAIC can expect the next five years to be a productive and exciting time," Brown said.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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