September 9, 2007

Arecibo: A Little Insurance Against Big Asteroids
Arecibo Radio Telescope

Panorama photograph I took at Arecibo last year. (view larger)

The Washington Post is reporting today that funding is in jeopardy for the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Without real (and voting) membership in Congress, the Commonwealth lacks the pork-potential other elected officials bring to their home districts. Last year my family and I visited this radio telescope as part of a science field trip for my daughter’s fourth grade class.

The opening sentence of the Post’s report paints quite a romantic picture of the telescope’s location: “In the tangled forests of Puerto Rico’s steamy interior…” It’s in a forest but not too far from homes and neighborhoods on the outskirts of the coastal town of Arecibo. The climb from the parking lot to the visitor’s center and telescope was a steep one. Not for bad hearts or the faint-hearted.

Journalistic romanticism aside, the observatory deserves more funding. As the paper reports, “it is the only facility on the planet able to track asteroids with enough precision to tell which ones might plow into Earth —a disaster that could cause as many as a billion deaths and that experts say is preventable with enough warning.” That, alone, is worth a few billion in cash.

Things are so desperate Robert B. Kerr, the observatory’s site director, recently stated he might be open to awarding naming rights for the telescope to bring in some extra cash: “Imagine the word ‘Google’ painted across that 19-acre dish,” he said. “What do you think that would be worth?”

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