The U.S. Nation­al Sci­ence Foun­da­tion is accept­ing pro­pos­als from any­one who wants to take over operations.

By Asso­ci­at­ed Press and Dan­i­ca Coto
Jan 25, 2017 

The future of one of the world’s largest sin­gle-dish radio tele­scopes is in ques­tion after the U.S. Nation­al Sci­ence Foun­da­tion announced Wednes­day it was accept­ing pro­pos­als from those inter­est­ed in assum­ing oper­a­tions at the Areci­bo Obser­va­to­ry in Puer­to Rico.

The announce­ment comes as the fed­er­al agency runs out of funds to sup­port the obser­va­to­ry, which fea­tures a 1,000-foot-wide (305-meter-wide) dish used in part to search for grav­i­ta­tion­al waves and track aster­oids that might be on a col­li­sion course with Earth.

Offi­cials with the foun­da­tion stressed in an inter­view Wednes­day with The Asso­ci­at­ed Press that the agency prefers that the obser­va­to­ry remain open with the help of col­lab­o­ra­tors that would pro­vide a fund­ing boost.

“Our (com­mu­ni­ty reviews) have rec­og­nized that Areci­bo does great sci­ence and will con­tin­ue to do great sci­ence,” said Ralph Gaume, act­ing divi­sion direc­tor for the foun­da­tion’s Divi­sion of Astro­nom­i­cal Sciences.

How­ev­er, he warned it’s pos­si­ble none of the pro­pos­als that have to be sub­mit­ted by late April will be cho­sen. This would leave the foun­da­tion with alter­na­tives includ­ing sus­pend­ing oper­a­tions at the obser­va­to­ry, turn­ing it into an edu­ca­tion­al cen­ter or shut­ting it down.

The first hint that the 53-year-old obser­va­to­ry was at risk came a decade ago, when a pan­el of experts rec­om­mend­ed it be shut down unless oth­er insti­tu­tions could help the foun­da­tion. The agency finances two-thirds of the obser­va­to­ry’s $12 mil­lion annu­al bud­get, and offi­cials said it could pro­vide some $20 mil­lion over a five-year peri­od to a poten­tial new operator.

Sci­en­tists use the obser­va­to­ry in part to detect radio emis­sions emit­ted by objects includ­ing stars and galax­ies, and it has been fea­tured in the Jodie Fos­ter film “Con­tact” and the James Bond movie “Gold­en­Eye.” It attracts about 90,000 vis­i­tors and some 200 sci­en­tists a year that use the obser­va­to­ry for free to do research, said obser­va­to­ry direc­tor Fran­cis­co Cordova.

How­ev­er, he told the AP that could change depend­ing on the type of pro­pos­als submitted.

“Per­haps in the future, sci­en­tists might have to pay to use it,” he said, adding that the obser­va­to­ry still plays a key role in research includ­ing the study of solar erup­tions capa­ble of dis­rupt­ing elec­tron­ic equipment.

The obser­va­to­ry has been threat­ened in recent years by big­ger, more pow­er­ful tele­scopes in places like Chile and Chi­na, where offi­cials recent­ly unveiled the Five-hun­dred-meter Aper­ture Spher­i­cal Tele­scope, or FAST.

The foun­da­tion said it expects to make a deci­sion by late 2017 as it awaits com­ple­tion of a final envi­ron­men­tal impact state­ment, which will out­line all alter­na­tives for the obser­va­to­ry’s future.