back to article Collapsed Arecibo telescope to be replaced by school

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) has decided not to rebuild Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory, shut down in August 2020 due to damage accrued three years earlier. In its place, the NSF has solicited bids to create "a new multidisciplinary, world-class educational center" for science, technology, engineering, and math ( …

  1. ITS Retired

    We've got plenty of money to spend on the military destroying stuff all over the world, but when it come to education and new knowledge, where's enough profit in that to make it worthwhile?

    Our priorities are all screwed up.

    1. Greybearded old scrote Silver badge

      Couldn't agree more. In the early '70s Carl Sagan listed several space exploration projects that were costed to be within the cost over-runs of some defence projects. In other words you could fund a pretty good space program on the defence department accounting errors.

      1. rg287

        Absolutely. The media loves to spread "sticker shock" with big numbers because they're huge in domestic terms.

        But in government spending terms they're a rounding error. The NHS in Britain spends £500m/day. State Pensions cost nearly as much. And the NHS is worth every penny, I'm not suggesting we divert funding - but it brings government spending figures sharply into perspective.

        If we said "Britain is going to build an Arecibo replacement on Ascension Island. It'll cost £500m and take 5 years", the tabloids would be screaming, even though we're proposing to spend the equivalent of 5hours of NHS per year on the project.

        The same is seen in infrastructure like HS2 "OMG, £100Bn, that's mad money". Well yeah, and over 15years that's ~£6Bn/yr, which is slightly less than what the cabinet spends on cocaine in the same period. And then you have a railway at the end of it - unlike Trident (lifetime costs ~£100Bn) which will spend some decades bobbing around, hopefully never used and then scrapped.

        Big infrastructure and science projects used to be a point of national pride. Now they're a cause for hand-wringing, with the fifth columnists busy telling us why we can't do stuff like that any more. It's only the politics that's changed. We can afford them.

        1. Greybearded old scrote Silver badge

          I'm not sure HS2 is the best example. I'd have preferred to see the money spread around the network so everybody benefits.

          1. MachDiamond Silver badge

            "I'm not sure HS2 is the best example"

            It's very hard to analyze close up. If you just look at the costs to put it in, the costs to operate and what it might earn from fares and you only scratch the surface. On the positive side, it can take loads of private vehicles off of the road relieving the need to expand motorways. There are various economic benefits that are hard to quantify but it's already well known that a train station greatly improves the value of an area. On the down side, accidents could be more spectacular and costly to address and the line will put barriers across some lands with limited points where crossings will be constructed.

            I'm a bit biased as I really love traveling by train. Part of that these days is the lack of a strip search beforehand and the removal of small expensive items from my luggage in the name of public safety (or some such tripe).

            1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

              >There are various economic benefits

              Doubling house prices in Birmingham by making it a London commuter zone is an economic benefit for some (and presumably turns those people into a political benefit) but it's not clear that its a national benefit

              1. MachDiamond Silver badge

                "Doubling house prices in Birmingham by making it a London commuter zone is an economic benefit for some (and presumably turns those people into a political benefit) but it's not clear that its a national benefit"

                Good grief. Why would you want to live in Birmingham and commute to London? It's trading one big city for another and sticking in a nearly 2 hour train ride twice daily. If you lived in Northampton and worked in both cities, that would make some sense. Now it makes homes in Northampton more valuable.

                There's a photographer I know that lives in Leicester but gets big agency jobs that would normally require he was in London. His agent is in London and he can travel down on the train for jobs if he's not doing the work in his own studio. He readily admits that if he was in London, there would be too many distractions for him to spend the time he needs to hone his craft. It's only about an hour by train so it's not much longer than trying to get across the city in a car. He only needs to do this a couple of times a month and not at when there were all of the lockdowns. If he had a studio in London, he would either be massively in arrears on rent or would have had to give it up. He'd also have to take on more work that doesn't really fit his style to keep the bills paid.

                1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

                  >Good grief. Why would you want to live in Birmingham and commute to London?

                  You don't have to want to:

                  If you are a property developer anywhere along the HS2 line you made $$$$ and so you show your appreciation at party funding time.

                  If you are a home owner anywhere along the HS2 line, then the property website tells you that your house is now worth 50% more and so you show your appreciation come election day

          2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Part of the reason for a whole new line instead of an upgrade to an existing line is the network in the relevant areas is almost or already at capacity, which is a major part of the problems elsewhere on the network. A major network repair programme across the entire UK would also be a good thing but would not increase capacity by much, just make what is already there more reliable.

          3. rg287

            I'm not sure HS2 is the best example. I'd have preferred to see the money spread around the network so everybody benefits.

            More or less everyone does benefit from HS2, because the segregation of express services off the legacy network has profound impacts on the national network. Basically, mixed-speed traffic is very inefficient - same reason why buses and bicycles aren't allowed on motorways. They're dedicated as express routes.

            The moment Curzon Street removes all the Glasgow/Manchester-bound trains from New Street, the capacity for West Mids stopping services, as well as trains down to Bristol/Cardiff/Exeter quadruples. A nationally-significant bottleneck around Birmingham/Coventry is released.

            If HS2 is built in full (to Leeds), then you provide the same capacity release on ECML and MML. The East coast in particular needs the fast trains gone to make space for rail freight from all our east-coast ports, which the likes of Amazon and Tesco are investing heavily to get HGVs off the road (slow, get stuck in traffic, need lots of drivers).

            HS2 is a 3-in-1 upgrade to our major Mainlines. You could achieve the same by putting in a 100-mph "express" line for non-stop services parallel to each of those lines - traffic segregation is the aim, not outright speed. But that would cost a great deal more than building one 200mph line (which also, as an additional benefit, starts to undermine domestic aviation like London-Manchester).

        2. Dave559 Silver badge

          Sadly that seems to all too often be the way of public sector projects:

          "Capital budget" (aka building the thing), these can often eventually get voted through when enough politicians realise that they'll be able to feature in the photo opportunity cutting the opening ribbon at the end of the day…

          "Revenue budget" (aka maintaining the thing (and, no, I don't know why it's described as 'revenue')), sadly there is no fame and glory in that, even though keeping services running is exactly what we expect the various levels of government to do, and all of the existing 'things' have to compete with each other to try to get their fair share of the essential money…

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            That's not just a public sector disease. See also any new building put up in the last 100 years or so. Most are already gone and any new ones will likely not "live" past 30 or 40 years at best before being replaced. Things are not built to last because they know there won't be a maintenance budget. Maintenance, repairs and upgrades attract VAT on materiels. New builds don't so it's often more attractive financially to pull an "old" building down and quickly put up a new one on the cheap.

        3. MachDiamond Silver badge

          "It's only the politics that's changed. We can afford them."

          Not only can it be afforded, it's money better spent than on things like safe shoot-up sites and clean needle programs for junkies to do drugs.

          The military spending is an easy target. Some base commanders in the US have quietly complained about having equipment foisted on them that they do not need and that equipment creating a drain on their budget to keep maintained by order. Some politician rammed through some pork for a military supplier in their district as a condition that they vote in favor of some other politician's pork project to curry favor, support and kickbacks from companies in their district.

          I wish I could give proper credit, but I remember one pundit saying that we don't spend money "in space", we spend it on Earth. Many of the programs spin off all sorts of technologies and advancements in material science that industry can use. Agencies such as NASA have the flavor of Bell Labs back in the day. Funny enough, some of the things NASA and ESA work on apply directly towards efficiency and sustainability that political hacks keep going on about. If you need to support a lunar colony, handling waste and making the most efficient use of power so the base can survive a lunar night can be used right here on Earth (for orders of magnitude less money). With Covid and talk about it escaping a lab, why not shift virus research to an isolated facility on the moon? The research needs to be done so why not sentence it to "transportation" and do it someplace with a really impressive air-gap?

          1. doublelayer Silver badge

            "why not shift virus research to an isolated facility on the moon?"

            A bunch of science fiction stories could be written about the results of that. Anyone want to start a collection with me? I see the following options:

            1. Virus doesn't survive conditions on transport or storage, research fails.

            2. Virus mutates into something worse in unusual conditions, disaster.

            3. Virus mutates into something different, everyone ends up studying the wrong thing due to change.

            4. Containment fails, researchers infected but trapped on moon.

            5. Containment fails plus mutation, part of moon polluted with infectious agents and decontamination becomes the new problem.

            6. Evaluation of costs of the project versus the benefits with multiple possible outcomes.

            1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

              I just watched #4 on Netflix a week or so back. The Silent Sea, a dubbed Korean SF drama.

            2. MachDiamond Silver badge

              "4. Containment fails, researchers infected but trapped on moon."

              And that's even worse than researchers on Earth not mentioning the little issue they had in the lab and millions are infected? It might be a risk that researchers have to take.

              1-3. Those are good arguments that would have to be considered, but not insurmountable. Protein separation techniques were studied on the Space Shuttle to see how gravity affected the process. Now those processes can be done on Earth with a deeper understanding. There might not be a way to shift all research to the moon, but it wouldn't hurt to see if a good portion of it could be.

              5. A virus that can survive on the moon and propagate across it would be really bad. It wouldn't be a decon problem, it would be an end of life as we know it problem. I don't think anybody expects a virus to survive in vacuum, irradiation by the unfiltered sun, cosmic rays and extreme temperature swings.

              6. Cost is always a factor, but again, if Sars-Cov-2 was an escapee from a lab, the cost of the lab being on the moon would have been trivial. I'm not saying it was from a lab, but that's not a completely whacked out scenario. Nobody has put forward a conspiracy hypothesis that Ebola Zaire was bred in a lab, but it would be much better to work on something like that off-planet.

              1. doublelayer Silver badge

                If you're working on something that doesn't exist in nature, then we're getting close to bioweapon territory. Bioweapon labs on the moon aren't quite as worth the investment as research there.

                Designing a lunar laboratory that can avoid infecting people requires a lot of stuff that a terrestrial one does not. Isolating people in a facility is actually a lot easier down here where we have experience doing it and where recovery from a disaster doesn't require hasty organization of a relief rocket launch. If you want more separation from people, you can avoid some of the lunar conditions by using an isolated place on the planet such as an uninhabited island in the Arctic or even high on a mountain that you don't let people climb.

                If whatever you're investigating is really so dangerous that we need the isolation, then you can try the moon, but if it already exists on earth, then your risk is primarily from that, not your lab. If it doesn't exist on earth yet, you might need to ask why you need to deal with it (if it's alien microbes, keep that on the moon, but if it's something you're making, maybe consider not making it).

              2. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                if Sars-Cov-2 was an escapee from a lab

                I recommend - "Could an accident have caused COVID-19? Why the Wuhan lab-leak theory shouldn't be dismissed" (USA Today). Despite the click bait title it's barely about COVID. Rather, it's an opinion piece piece by an investigative journalist mostly listing documented bio-research accidents mostly outside of China. The opening -

                On a warm summer evening in July 2014, a laboratory worker on the National Institutes of Health’s sprawling campus just north of Washington, D.C., exited Building 29A toting a cardboard box. Its contents rattled inside – an assortment of fragile glass vials labeled with faded typewriter script: Q fever, rickettsia and, worst of all, four strains of variola – the dreaded virus that causes smallpox.

                Highly contagious, variola is one of the deadliest viruses the world has ever known. It could rip through most of the U.S. population and cause a global health disaster if released. It killed as many as 3 out of every 10 people infected before it was declared eradicated from the planet in 1980.

                Clink. Clink.

                Nobody has been routinely vaccinated against smallpox in decades, leaving most people in the United States and around the world vulnerable to infection. Yet after forgotten specimen vials dating to the 1940s and 1950s were discovered at the NIH in an unlocked cold storage room, nothing was done to ensure their safe transportation. They were allowed to bump around in a cardboard box with dozens of other old biological specimens as a lone laboratory worker walked them to another building about two blocks away, federal records show.

                One vial had already shattered.

                The world got lucky that day, as it often has when safety breaches occur at biological laboratories in the United States and around the world.

                A deadly epidemic wasn't unleashed. It was only a tissue specimen that broke and nobody got sick.

                “Had any of the six glass vials containing the Variola virus been breached, there would have been nothing to contain the agent and prevent its release to the surrounding environment,” according to a joint investigation report by the FBI and federal lab regulators.

                As members of a World Health Organization expert team have made international headlines recently dismissing as “extremely unlikely” the possibility that a laboratory accident in Wuhan, China, could have sparked the COVID-19 pandemic, I can’t stop thinking of the hundreds of lab accidents that are secretly occurring just in the United States.

                As an investigative reporter, I have spent more than a decade revealing shocking safety breaches that officials at laboratories in our own country don’t want the public to know about.

                I have uncovered exotic and deadly bacteria that have hitched rides out of high-security labs on workers’ dirty clothing, silently spreading contagion for weeks. I have revealed how spacesuit-like protective gear and tubes carrying safe oxygen to scientists have torn or broken – repeatedly – and high-tech safety systems have failed dramatically. Vials of viruses and bacteria have gone missing. Researchers bitten by infected lab animals have been allowed to move about in public – rather than being quarantined – while waiting for signs of infection to appear.

                These and similar safety lapses are happening with disturbing regularity at elite U.S. labs operated by government agencies, the military, universities and private firms. There is no reason to believe they aren’t happening at labs in other countries as well.

                With that information in mind, on the one hand, you concern about safety is not misplaced. On the other hand, there is so much of that research going on that to move it all to the moon would probably be beyond NASAs budget by far. And then there is risk of launch accidents spreading the dangerous contagious contents over wide areas of Florida. (It would be a good movie plot though.)

          2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            "shift virus research to an isolated facility on the moon?...and do it someplace with a really impressive air-gap?""

            Is it an "air gap"?

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Likely lost in the reply chain, but

        the Military was the main funding source for building the "Big Ear"

        That's why it has the most powerful radar emitter ever built into a radio telescope.

        Most of them only receive. A decent amount of that work was classified, and once the military lost interest, most of the big dishes were transferred to the scientific researchers. Usually at that point the funding covered ongoing operations and upgrades, but a big chunk of the up front money would be Gov funding for military science. Research that eventually helped them figure out how to do things like signal submarines deep in the oceans.

        Problem is that the budget to operate it was never big enough to build a new one when things wore out, or to to major repairs on something as truly massive as 'cibo or Green Banks. So they eventually became unsafe, closed down for years, and then fell apart.

        Most of the big research has moved to array based systems with much smaller parts. There are a few things you can do with those setups though, and banging out a massive 20+ TW signal that only Arecibo could ever do. It will now cost us (or China) a pretty penny to build out anything close to the same capability.

        The place has become mired in fantasies like aliens and flying saucers, and the inability of the science press to cover or care about anything that wasn't a conspiracy theory hot take on a SETI press release really helped kill it in the end. (not that I have a beef with the SETI team at 'cibo, they helped keep the lights on for years, and bought us years of meaniful science while they were waiting for a reply to loudly banging out prime numbers. ( - might have been a bad idea, our ancestors might find out if they last that long)

    2. bombastic bob Silver badge

      "Our priorities are all screwed up"

      You are NOT wrong. I question the motives behind THOSE priorities, and the conclusion I come to is the same plague that has, well, *plagued* human society since it began - the quest for power over others, by tyrants, and the desire to MAINTAIN THAT POWER at all costs. And maybe to PROFIT from it along the way...

      /me hearing Muse's "Compliance" and "Uprising": alternatetey running in my head at the moment...

      As for replacing Arecibo, would a space-based telescope at a lagrange point be a better idea? Perhaps a very fine metal mesh could be extended 10's of meters as a parabolic reflector to form a giant dish antenna,... [earth moon lagrange, earth-sun lagrange, any of them] and distance from earth would help with "radio pollution"

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        The big and unique thing about Arecibo seems to be the powerful radar facility. That might be a bit more difficult to run on a remote space based jobbie. I've no idea how much power Arecibo can put out, but if they are using to to look at the surface of Venus and Mercury, I'd imagine it's quite a lot. I suspect solar cells won't cut it for sustained operation.

      2. MachDiamond Silver badge

        "As for replacing Arecibo, would a space-based telescope at a lagrange point be a better idea?"

        It couldn't have been transplanted as is. Controlling the receiver relied on gravity to position it and keep it in position. Even with the dish made out of a fine mesh, it would still be a lot of mass that would have to be stabilized somehow against mechanical alignments being made in the old action/reaction law sort of thing. It might be easier to put together a huge flat face receiver and use beam steering for many things.

        The project would definitely be the largest construction in space ever done. I'd worry about keeping everything aligned with shifting thermals across the structure. We don't have to worry so much about that on Earth as a shadow from a cloud crossing part of a bridge isn't going to lead to a rapid shift in temperature. Now I'm thinking it would be fun to take a course in space structures. Unfortunately, there likely is only a couple of universities with that in the curricula and none of them will be near me or cost less than $10k/semester. Winning the lottery is still a work in progress.

  2. Kev99 Silver badge

    A school like that proposed is all well and good but what good is it if there isn't real world hands-on training? The US used to be the world leader in research. It seems now that the powers that be would rather let the country sink into oblivion and rely on possible adversaries for research.

  3. TVU Silver badge

    This is insane bean counting by the National Science Foundation particularly since this radio telescope has made such a great contribution to planetary science and the observation of potentially dangerous asteroids.

    All this will do is cede the leadership in radio astronomy to China and I hope that there is such an outcry so that Sethuraman Panchanathan and the National Science Foundation are forced to reverse this perverse and ill-conceived decision.

    1. ThatOne Silver badge

      > I hope that there is such an outcry

      Unlikely. The writing was on the wall, quite visible, since the cable fell two years ago. The decision was made to let the telescope rot away till it's beyond repair. To lessen the blow now they claim it will become an "educational facility". Sure, sure, a heap of rusting metal out in the boonies, now that's useful. The only thing you'll be able to learn there is that science is but an afterthought, and that it's the first thing that will be dropped when things are anything less than optimal. Who needs those eggheads anyway?

      1. Mike 137 Silver badge

        'it will become an "educational facility" '

        I wonder whether the "education facility" will cost at least as much (or more) to build and equip than the telescope would have cost to repair.

        1. ThatOne Silver badge

          Re: 'it will become an "educational facility" '

          Who said anything about building anything? There will be money allocated to friends & family for "preliminary studies" and that's all. You know the drill.

        2. MachDiamond Silver badge

          Re: 'it will become an "educational facility" '

          "I wonder whether the "education facility" will cost at least as much (or more) to build and equip than the telescope would have cost to repair."

          Much much more all around. When I went to uni, it saved me all sorts of money for it to be located in a densely populated area with plenty of public transportation. I had a car, but not needing it to get to classes and do my shopping saved me tons of money. I had a choice of a couple of more campuses, but they were further out with little around them or they were sat in the middle of a transportation desert. An educational facility can be built just about anywhere. If the telescope was repaired it could make sense for it to have facilities there for students, but not if it's defunct.

  4. Bitsminer Silver badge

    School district

    The budget in 2019 was around $6M per year, according to NSF budget docs.[PDF]

    That's less than a small school district. So why close it?

    1. doublelayer Silver badge

      Re: School district

      That's the budget for upkeep of a functioning facility. The first emergency repair was estimated at $10.5M, the next stages at $50M, and an idea to build a more modern replacement at $450M. Had the telescope remained intact, I'm sure they would have continued to pay $6M per year to keep things running, but when the costs began to increase, they had to figure out what was worth doing. The agency's budget isn't massive, so if they can't convince the government or some other rich group to pay for the repairs, they have to decide how the different priorities they have rank. This decision didn't come down to a $6M bill.

  5. Paul Hovnanian Silver badge

    Nice thought, but ...

    ... isn't the site located some miles away from the nearest town (Arecibo), through the mountains? And there are some other instruments up there, still working. So perhaps keep it in reserve for possible future observatory work. There's the University of Puerto Rico campus in town. Perhaps a better site for a bunch of STEM students.

    1. ThatOne Silver badge

      Re: Nice thought, but ...

      > isn't the site located some miles away from the nearest town (Arecibo), through the mountains?

      You didn't believe them, did you? They'll paint a quaint picture of schools making field trips and all that, but the main and only project here is to kill Arecibo, quietly. The "educational facility" excuse is just to reassure the public, who doesn't have a clue where or what Arecibo is (and don't really care, especially if somebody tells them there is nothing to worry about).

      The "educational facility" will be a "work in progress", allowing to hand out some juicy contracts, till it is quietly shelved in a couple years.

  6. TsVk!

    Should just turn the whole site into an extreme skate park. Use the revenue to build another one. :D

    1. Spherical Cow Silver badge

      Tony Hawk-Eye-on-the-Sky?

    2. jmch Silver badge

      Or bungee jumping... Sean Bean but with a rope

    3. MachDiamond Silver badge

      "Should just turn the whole site into an extreme skate park."

      About half of the dish is gone and it's just a dirt crater underneath. You'd need those Smart Wheels from RadaKS on your plank to surf that venue.

  7. Cynical Pie

    I blame Pierce Brosnan

  8. Maxcypond

    Those kids won't be able to see a thing, they need a telescope....

  9. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    The Arecibo Center for STEM Education and Research (ACSER)

    Wow, nested acronyms! Acronyms all the way down :-)

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