Early in the morning of December 1, the famed Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico suffered from a fatal collapse. The event marked the end to a string of unfortunate events that had plagued the observatory. Now, Arecibo’s sad demise and the events leading up to it are acting as a cautionary tale for other aging facilities.
The big question now being raised within the astronomy community is this: How long do we hold on to existing facilities before moving on to newer, more advanced ones? On the surface, this may appear to be a relatively simple question to answer, but when you consider the shrinking federal funding in the US, things get complicated.
If we attempt to answer this question by simply looking at an observatory’s usefulness, it doesn’t help in any way. “All of them are doing great at looking at weird places in the universe, producing fantastic people and technology, and all that kind of stuff,” says Tony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.
A much more productive aspect to look at is funding. What typically happens as observatories age is that federal funding for them declines and is allocated to newer, more capable facilities. This decline in funding paired with a facility’s older age will inevitably spell disaster, just as it did with the Arecibo Observatory. Knowing this, the question that remains is how long can any particular facility last.
One solution that some in the astronomy community have brought up is to transfer ownership of older facilities to private entities. Doing this would solve the funding problem while still allowing the facilities to operate and make scientific discoveries. However, this solution does come with one giant caveat — you need a buyer. NASA learned early on that this is a lot easier said than done when it tried to sell off its aging Spitzer Space Telescope for years, ultimately never finding a buyer.
At the end of the day, there is no easy answer, no simple solution. One thing that older facilities can do is allocate a majority of funding to maintenance. When doing even that becomes difficult, it may be time to attempt to sell the facility or move on to a new one.
“In astronomy, we are right at that moment, that sort of inflection point, where we have to make a very clear decision about world leadership and what the benefits to the US are of being a world leader in a field like this. Where the money goes is a reflection of values,” said Beasley.