Why we didn't see it coming
September 9, 2007 10:55 AM   Subscribe

Arecibo Observatory, only facility on the planet able to track asteroids with enough precision to tell which ones might plow into Earth is losing funding. NSF has told them to find outside funding for half their budget. Part of the problem? They're in PR, so they have no state senators to fight budget cuts on their behalf. Also facing a crunch, the Very Long Baseline Array (Very Large Array seems ok, money-wise) which stretches from Hawaii to the Virgin Islands.
posted by korej (22 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Well, of course it is. Gotta save that money to "rebuild" Iraq...and Afghanistan...Iran....
posted by nyxxxx at 11:22 AM on September 9, 2007

I'm always in favor of more science funding (esp. given the sorry state of U.S. research), but part of me can't help but think- well, humanity has managed to avoid asteroids plowing into the earth for thousands of years without the help of massive telescopes.
posted by mkultra at 11:29 AM on September 9, 2007

I do hope they'll pull through somehow. It's such a shame that short sighted politicians would deprive the world of these tools of knowledge and wonder.
posted by Alec at 11:30 AM on September 9, 2007

humanity has managed to avoid asteroids plowing into the earth for thousands of years without the help of massive telescopes.

In the final days before the skyscraper-size chunk of rock we failed to detect destroys human civilization, I am so going to hunt you down and make you apologize.
posted by mediareport at 11:37 AM on September 9, 2007 [13 favorites]

I thought they mostly used optical 'scopes for asteroid-hunting, or at least that Arecibo isn't used for asteroid-hunting much. I get the impression that one of the main, if not the main, asteroid-tracking centers is the Minor Planet Center. They operate out of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, which makes no mention of Arecibo as being one of the ground-based observatories they use.

Even if I'm right, though, Arecibo is still a great radio observatory and shouldn't be shut down. Just because it isn't protecting us from asteroids, that doesn't mean it isn't providing a valuable service. Not everything is about national defense, eh?
posted by jiawen at 11:50 AM on September 9, 2007

I don't know where you got the idea that Arecibo was the only scope capable of tracking earth-crossing asteroids. In fact, Arecibo is a poor choice for that because it can only see a small part of the sky and can only watch any given part of the sky for a short period (a couple of minutes) per day.

I suspect the reason NSF is shutting down funding is because Arecibo isn't a very useful facility. I'm really quite surprised it's still being used at all.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:53 AM on September 9, 2007

Couldn't they raise funds by using the Arecibo telescope as a skate park on weekends?
posted by kuujjuarapik at 12:08 PM on September 9, 2007

It was really cool in that James Bond movie. Can't they get some evil genius to use part of it as a lair?
posted by smackfu at 12:47 PM on September 9, 2007

Steven C. Den Beste - it was the mention in the 4th paragraph of the second link.
posted by korej at 1:15 PM on September 9, 2007

As long as Bruce Willis is still around, why do we need to know they're coming? We'll just wait until they get here... and BAM, ZOOM!
posted by blue_beetle at 2:06 PM on September 9, 2007

Sorry, we've got to pour more money down the steaming rat-hole of war.

Having stripped everything above decks, we're now feeding the kitchen and the crew bunks into the boiler. And oh, look ... the top 3 feet of the boatsides are above water.

A fool and his economy are soon parte.d
posted by Twang at 2:19 PM on September 9, 2007

Couldn't they raise funds by using the Arecibo telescope as a skate park on weekends?

Nah, it's not skateable, it just looks that way from a distance. Between Arecibo and the Rio Camuy, all the interesting geology in the region, it is a great area for science- and ecotourism.

IANAA (Astrophysicist), but I came away with the impression that the VLBA is where it's at, and that they're operating on a shoestring as well. Thing is, there's really nothing of historic interest about the antennae in the VLBA. Arecibo is interesting for a number of reasons, but just as a functioning radio observatory. I'd like to see it maintained on those grounds, even if it just eventually gets turned over to the parks service.

Wasn't there supposed to be an increase in science funding across the board this year?
posted by litfit at 2:30 PM on September 9, 2007

Maybe an asteroid will plunge in Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan and kill two billion birds with one stone.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:44 PM on September 9, 2007

Hey man, can't afford science when there's brown people to kill in order to make your buddies richer! Besides, science contradicts the Bible!
posted by notsnot at 2:47 PM on September 9, 2007

If only we could convince Bush the asteroids were harboring terrorists. Maybe we could get Chalabi to tell him.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 2:49 PM on September 9, 2007

Amazingly I open this as Goldeneye is on Brit TV
posted by A189Nut at 3:51 PM on September 9, 2007

humanity has managed to avoid asteroids plowing into the earth for thousands of years without the help of massive telescopes
Unless you count Brooke Asteroid!
posted by DenOfSizer at 4:52 PM on September 9, 2007

Arecibo is a radio telescope. How is that helping find asteroids?

Also, there's LINEAR. (disclaimer: I am remotely connected with them.)
posted by DU at 5:05 PM on September 9, 2007

Arecibo is a radio telescope. How is that helping find asteroids?

The difference between a radio telescope and radar is simple -- a transmitter. Guess what Arecibo has? They don't just do radio astronomy, they do radar astronomy and astrometry . Radar astrometry is critical in near-earth object analysis.

Radar returns are an inverse-fourth power to distance, thus, you need large transmitters *and* sensitive receivers. Interferometry doesn't work here -- interferometers, like the VLBA, increase the resolution, but they only have the sensitivity of the individual dishes.

There are times where large is the right answer. Aricebo was able to track 99942 Apophis and refine the orbit enough to confirm that it will not hit the Earth in 2029, though it will come very close -- 5.6 +- .4 earth radii.
posted by eriko at 5:28 PM on September 9, 2007

Oh, I didn't know Arecibo had a transmitter. That's what I get for using half-remembered scenes from Contact as my basis.

Radar astrometry is critical in near-earth object analysis.

Useful, yes. You get range and range rate directly. I don't know about critical, though. With a few sightings (depending on the length) you can make just as good a prediction with optical only. Of course, you have to make sure you have the same object each time...
posted by DU at 5:34 PM on September 9, 2007

I'm sure that Arecibo is still generating good science. But I'm not an astrophysicist, either, so I don't know how much its usefullness has diminished over the years.

An ex of mine is an astrophysicist, and she got her start at Arecibo as an undergrad. She's pretty sentimental about Arecibo—she loved her time there. She's now the deputy project scientist at ALMA (actually, not for one of the partners, but the Joint ALMA office), which is the future of radio astronomy. I keep expecting a post on ALMA, but I guess not for a couple more years until everything is installed.

Incidentally, someone mentioned Contact. My ex (I should also say that we're still friends) was a grad student working at the VLA before and during the filming of Contact. Actually, she was doing research with the director. Anyway, the pre-production team came to the NRAO/VLA with some camerapeople and wanted to get some film of astronomers working. (Which all you astronomers and physicists out there will find hilarious. As she put it, ”so they want to film me using a mouse and keyboard and staring at a monitor all day?”) Because she was female, and the lead of the movie was female, they decided that wanted to film her. So they did. Which was sort of neat.

It's really a pain, actually, when Hollywood wants to use facilities like the VLA and Arecibo for their films. It really disrupts research, even when they try very hard to be as non-disruptive as possible. Especially in the VLA's case, good film shots of the VLA require that the telecopes be moved in close and aimed in photographically pleasing ways, all of which takes a lot of time and no science can be done. The director of the NRAO when Contact was filmed was reluctant to allow filming, they even gave him the script to read. But I'm sure there was pressure from above, and also people don't get to high administrative positions like that without realize the importance of PR. Hollywood has featured the VLA so much, I'm sure that it's great PR for the facility and useful for keeping it funded.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:14 PM on September 9, 2007

Um, the main ALMA website isn't very informative. The Wikipedia entry is pretty good.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:18 PM on September 9, 2007

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