Congress takes an interest in the Arecibo Observatory

by Aug 3, 2021Congress, Headlines, Puerto Rico0 comments

Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (NPP, R) of Puerto Rico and Representative Mike Waltz (R) of Florida led a group of members from the United States House Committee on Space, Science, and Technology and the Committee on Appropriations that have jurisdiction over the Arecibo Observatory, to inspect the damages caused by the collapse of the radio telescope before a forum discussion on possible short-term and long-term options for the installation.

The Arecibo Observatory, also known as the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC) was once the world’s largest and most powerful radar and radio astronomy telescope. It was built by the Department of Defense in 1963. The structure is almost as large as 13 football fields. Following cable failures, the structure collapsed on December 1, 2020.

The congressional delegation was composed of Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s sole representative in Congress; Mike Waltz (R) of Florida, Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Research & Technology, US House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology; Frank Lucas (R) of Oklahoma, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology; Brian Babin (R) of Texas, Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Space, US House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology; and Steven Palazzo (R) of Mississippi, Member of the US House Committee on Appropriations.

“The impact [of] the Observatory’s collapse was felt on both a national and international level, evidencing the relevancy of this scientific institution that has made countless contributions to science.  Among its many accomplishments were the first discovery of a binary pulsar, the first discovery of an extrasolar planet, the composition of Earth’s upper atmosphere, and the characterization of several potentially hazardous asteroids. Everyone ranging from students to Nobel Prize recipients have studied at the observatory. It’s important for us to better understand the events that preceded the collapse, as it is to explore possibilities that will allow the Arecibo Observatory to keep going.”, expressed González-Colón.

The members arrived at the site and observed the magnitude of the work that still needs to be done as part of the clean-up process, as well as the forensic work that includes an analysis of the suspension cables that held up the Observatory’s massive dome. The delegation also visited the other installations housed at the Observatory.

At the Observatory, a forum titled Arecibo Observatory: A Bright Future was held where Francisco Córdova, Executive Director, Arecibo Observatory; Dr. Allison Smith, Preeminent Postdoctoral Fellow, Arecibo Observatory; Dr. Carlos Padín, Ana G. Mendez University; Luis Quintero, Electronics Department, Arecibo Observatory; and John Abruzzo, Engineer on Record, Thornton Thomasetti participated.

A review of the collapse showcased relevant information from preliminary forensic tests done to the cables that held the telescope over the dish. Proposals for the future and the importance of the observatory for education and professional training for STEM careers were also discussed.

The members of Congress agreed that the installation was incredibly important for the advancement of the sciences, national security, and STEM education. At the same time, they understood the necessity of giving strong consideration to options to rebuild.

They also met with students and representatives from several organizations including Research Experience for Undergraduates, which offers summer programs that provide investigative experience to bachelor’s degree students; Research Experience for Teachers, a program that helps strengthen and fortify educational and investigational abilities in STEM for teachers; the Arecibo Observatory Space Academy, for students who are looking to develop projects related to space exploration; and the STAR academy, which is funded as part of the Near Earth Objects Observation Program and is administered by the Ana G. Méndez University.

Resident Commissioner González-Colón has been at the forefront of work in Congress to kick start the development of the Arecibo Observatory given the new challenges brought on by the collapse. Since the first cable suspension broke in August of 2020, González-Colón has supported the radio telescope by requesting report language that was included in the explanatory statements accompanying the FY21 and FY22 appropriation bills of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science, hosting a Congressional Briefing, along with the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, for staff in March 2021—which included information on the Next Generation Arecibo Observatory, sending letters in support of stabilizing and subsequently reconstructing the radio telescope; and by dialoguing with local experts who have integrated with her Science Task Force to support these efforts.

The Arecibo Observatory is a federal installation that belongs to the National Science Foundation but is administered through an agreement between the University of Central Florida, Ana G. Méndez University, and Yang Enterprises.