ORLANDO, Feb. 22, 2018 – The largest fully operational radio telescope on the planet – the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico – will soon be under new management.
A consortium led by the University of Central Florida will start formal transition activities to take on the management of the National Science Foundation’s Observatory. NSF is negotiating the operations and management award with UCF.
With its partners, Universidad Metropolitana in San Juan and Yang Enterprises, Inc. in Oviedo, the team plans to expand the capabilities of the telescope, which has made significant contributions to science. The 18-acre reflector also was featured in the James Bond movie GoldenEye.
“UCF’s oversight of this crucial resource further solidifies our university as a leader in space-related research,” said UCF President John C. Hitt. “The observatory will provide a valuable new dimension to space science at UCF while creating more academic opportunities for students and faculty at UCF, in Puerto Rico and beyond. Our lead role with the observatory deepens Central Florida’s strong ties with our fellow citizens on the island. This agreement, made possible through partnerships, also ensures that the observatory will continue to make significant contributions to space science and mankind.”
The agreement is valued at $20.15 million, subject to the availability of funds, over five years and is scheduled to begin April 1.
“This is a win-win-win,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who supported UCF’s bid to manage Arecibo and recently helped secure funding in Congress to repair damage to the telescope caused by Hurricane Maria. “It’s good for UCF and Florida, it’s good for Puerto Rico, and it will enable thousands of scientists who do research at Arecibo each year to continue their work.”
The new agreement means the Arecibo Observatory will continue to offer scientists from around the world an opportunity to pursue radio astronomy, atmospheric science and planetary radar research. The consortium, calling itself Arecibo Observatory Management Team, also ensures that the observatory will continue to track potentially dangerous near-Earth objects.
“Universidad Metropolitana is proud to be a partner in this new project for the Arecibo Observatory,” said Chancellor Carlos M. Padin, who oversees the nonprofit institution of higher learning that is part of the Ana G. Méndez University System. “We are confident this partnership will expand the opportunities for research, as well as formal and informal STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education in Puerto Rico.”
The university’s role is focused on public outreach and engagement through formal and informal education. This partnership is an opportunity to help create a pipeline for students to study space sciences both in Puerto Rico and Central Florida by providing hands-on opportunities at the observatory.
For Yang Enterprises, Inc., the partnership has special significance. Tyng-Lin (Tim) Yang, founder and executive vice president, earned his Ph.D. in civil engineering at UCF in 1990. He also serves as an adjunct professor in the Civil Engineering Department and on the Dean’s Advisory Board for the UCF College of Engineering & Computer Science. He and president and CEO, Li-Woan Yang, built the company to a multimillion-dollar enterprise.
“This project presents a unique opportunity for Yang Enterprises to support not only space research, but also support the Arecibo community and the educational and scientific communities of the globe,” Tyng-Lin (Tim) Yang said.
Yang Enterprises, Inc. provides architecture and engineering, operations and maintenance, and logistical services for mission-critical systems for multiple NASA centers, the Air Force and several Fortune 500 companies. The group will be responsible for facilities infrastructure, engineering, operations, maintenance, information technology and support services, as well as logistics and security services. Yang Enterprises, Inc. will introduce new technologies and cutting-edge tools to support Arecibo’s requirements and modernize operations.
Arecibo’s History and Significance
Built in the 1960s, the observatory continues to make significant contributions to understanding the universe. Scientists from around the world have used the telescope.
Physicists Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor used the observatory to monitor a binary pulsar, providing a strict test of Einstein’s theory of general relativity and the first evidence for the existence of gravitational waves. That earned the men a Nobel Prize in 1993. Today, pulsars are being used to search directly for gravitational waves through incredibly accurate timing with the Arecibo telescope.
In 2017, the Arecibo Observatory discovered two strange pulsars that undergo a “cosmic vanishing act” – sometimes they are “on,” and then for very long periods of time they are “off.” This has upended the widely held view that all pulsars are the orderly ticking clocks of the universe.
In 2016, the Arecibo Observatory discovered the first repeating fast radio bursts, which are millisecond radio pulses that appear to be extragalactic.
Arecibo's research success is no accident. The location was picked because it has a lot of karst terrain with limestones and sinkholes. When exploring the island for a good location, scientists found a sinkhole with the near-perfect shape needed for the observatory and its giant dish. Additionally, its location allowed observations of a little-studied part of the Earth’s ionosphere near the equator.
The NSF has been funding part of Arecibo Observatory’s operations since the 1970s. Starting in 2010, NSF received input on the priorities for its scientific operations through the National Academies 6th Decadal Survey, the NSF Division of Astronomical Sciences Portfolio Review Committee Report and the NSF Geospace Sciences Portfolio Review Committee Report.
Based on that input, the NSF examined the options for continuing Arecibo Observatory operations. After extensive environmental-impact analysis and input from the public and the scientific community, the NSF decided to continue operations and put out a request for proposals to manage and operate the observatory. The move allows important research to continue while accommodating the agency's budgetary constraints and its core mission to support cutting-edge science and education.
"The Arecibo Observatory Management Team represents an excellent realization of the preferred alternative of the National Science Foundation,” said Richard Green, NSF’s division director for Astronomy. “We have confidence that the new partnership will promote astronomical science and ionospheric research investigations with vitality. It will also create expanded opportunities for education and training, all priorities for our continuing investment in a productive facility like Arecibo Observatory. Additionally, the recently approved Congressional legislation for hurricane relief provides substantial resources for the restoration of the observatory to its pre-hurricane functionality."
Under New Management
“We didn’t make a bid for this project lightly,” said Elizabeth Klonoff, vice president for UCF’s Office of Research and dean of the College of Graduate Studies. “The kind of science we can conduct with this observatory is important, and we didn’t want to see it go dark. We performed several analyses and reached out to partners to ensure we came up with a plan that is economically prudent and that ensures Arecibo will be in operation for years to come.”
There are several strategies the team will use to help pay for operations. They include, but are not limited to:
Even though Hurricane Maria caused damage to the observatory in September, the telescope is operational. Electricity was restored in December and operations resumed, although at reduced capacity. Visitors also are starting to come back to the observatory, which hosted a sold-out evening event in January for more than 600.
“The Arecibo Observatory is a very special place,” said director Francisco Córdova, who will continue to serve in that role. “It is currently the leading research facility in the areas of radar sciences, planetary sciences and space atmospheric science in the world. We are very excited about this new collaboration. I believe together we can do great things and continue to push the boundaries of science and STEM education across the globe.”
The world’s largest fully operational radio telescope, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, soon will be under new management. A consortium led by the University of Central Florida in Orlando will start formal transition activities to take on the operations and management of the National Science Foundation’s observatory.
Arecibo Observatory: Overview and History
Built into a sinkhole in a mountain range in northwest Puerto Rico, the telescope’s huge primary disc was used to discover the first exoplanets and detect organic molecules outside our galaxy.
The Arecibo Observatory includes 118 acres; its reflector covers 18 acres – or the size of nearly 24 football fields.
When completed in 1963, the observatory cost $9.3 million.
The 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor for their work with Arecibo in monitoring a binary pulsar, providing a strict test of Einstein’s theory of general relativity and the first evidence for the existence of gravitational waves. Today, pulsars are being used to search for gravitational waves through incredibly accurate timing with the Arecibo telescope.
The telescope has been featured in several films and television series, including GoldenEye, Contact and The X-Files.
Arecibo Observatory Management Team is the name of the management team in the NSF contract. It refers to partners University of Central Florida, Universidad Metropolitana and Yang Enterprises, Inc.
The team plans to expand the capabilities of the telescope. The new collaboration will allow the observatory to continue contributing to space science and will open up new opportunities to students and faculty in Central Florida, Puerto Rico and beyond.
The observatory will continue to offer scientists from around the world an opportunity to pursue radio, atmospheric science and pulsar astronomy research. The new agreement also ensures that the observatory will continue to be available to help track potentially dangerous near-Earth objects.
The agreement is valued at $20.15 million, subject to the availability of funds, over five years and is scheduled to begin April 1.
Once the transition is complete, faculty members and researchers from UCF will have the opportunity to work with scientists and other personnel at Arecibo. UCF conducts a variety of space-related research, mostly focused on planetary sciences. The telescope offers UCF faculty and students an opportunity to pursue new fields within space research including atmospheric science and radio astronomy. Likewise, scientists at Arecibo and students will have the opportunity to travel to UCF to potentially work on projects with experts in Orlando.
What research is done at the Arecibo Observatory?
The Arecibo Planetary Radar is used to study celestial bodies in our solar system such as planets, moons, asteroids and comets. Directed by the 1,000-foot reflector, a powerful beam of radio energy is transmitted in the direction of the target object. A small portion of this energy is reflected by the target back in the direction of Earth. This radio echo is processed and then analyzed to yield information about the size, shape, spin, density, composition, surface properties and geology (e.g., ridges, craters and boulders) of the target object.
The Arecibo Planetary Radar System can measure the distance to an asteroid, typically millions of kilometers away, with a precision of meters; it can measure the speed of an asteroid, typically tens of kilometers per second, with a precision of millimeters per second. Arecibo’s precision can greatly refine asteroid orbits, aiding NASA in its congressionally mandated mission to study near-Earth objects and help assess the impact hazard of potentially hazardous objects. The types of space research most commonly conducted at Arecibo are planetary science, atmospheric science and pulsar.
2017. Arecibo discovered two strange pulsars that undergo a “cosmic vanishing act” – sometimes they are there, and then for very long periods of time they are not. This has upended the widely held view that all pulsars are the orderly ticking clocks of the universe.
2016. Arecibo discovered the first repeating fast radio bursts, which are millisecond radio pulses that appear to be extragalactic.
1992. Arecibo discovered the first-known exoplanet. In subsequent observations, an entire planetary system was found around the pulsar PSR 1257+12.
1981. Arecibo produced the first radar maps of the surface of Venus. Optical images show only the top of the thick cloud layer.
1967. Arecibo discovered that the rotation rate of Mercury is 59 days, not the previously estimated 88 days. The rotation is not tidally locked, but rather the rate is an orbital resonance with two orbits for every three rotations.
BY MADELINE PATTON FEBRUARY 9, 2018
The imperative for Universidad Metropolitana to start a full-fledged fiber optic technician education program was reinforced for Andrés Diaz González when he spent three hours on October 13, 2017, trying to find an internet connection to submit the college’s Mentor-Connect application.
Weeks earlier, Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria on September 20 and damaged by the smaller yet still destructive Hurricane Irma on September 6.
Just hours before the Mentor-Connect deadline on October 13, Diaz González received his institution’s letter of support. With it, he was ready to send the completed Mentor-Connect application from his laptop computer.
However, internet service was limited to a few San Juan neighborhoods where underground optical fiber systems were still working. Diaz González drove around looking for intersections where people had gathered to talk on cell phones. Because the service intermittently cut out even in these places, he hit send multiple times from various locations before he received confirmation that the Mentor-Connect application had been transmitted.
Universidad Metropolitana is one of 21 two-year colleges selected to receive Mentor-Connect mentoring and technical assistance for the next nine months to prepare a grant proposal for the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education program.
Diaz González, who is a faculty member and academic coordinator of the Puerto Rico Photonics Institute affliated with Universidad Metropolitana, and Francisco J. Rivera, the institute’s lab manager, attended the Mentor-Connect Technical Assistance Workshop in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
There, they conferred with their mentor, Jim Hyder, an instructional designer and nanotechnology instructor for Arizona’s Rio Salado College, about their plans to create a degree program for fiber optic technicians. The institute’s current certificate and associate degree programs emphasize lasers and photonics and use curricula developed by the ATE-funded National Center for Optics and Photonics Education.
“With everything that happened with [Hurricane] Maria, we are definitely going to focus more on fiber optics because that is the current need … That way, we know our students will have greater opportunities in the job market. But, it’s also what Puerto Rico really needs right now and in the future,” Diaz González said.
Photonics student Marcos Santini, who had an internship at Critical Hub Networks, Inc., in the fall, now works full time for the IT infrastructure company that uses fiber optic technologies.
“It gives us great satisfaction that we were able to help our student,” Diaz González said.
During interviews, Diaz González and Rivera talked about the extraordinary efforts by faculty and staff to help students and each other after the hurricanes. They also described what educators have done to keep the educational enterprise going without electricity and other basics.
Many Universidad Metropolitana classes were taught outside under tents because buildings were unsafe due to wind, water, or mold damage. Diaz González and a colleague took turns traveling to a remote campus to instruct a student who could not make it to the San Juan campus.
Mentor-Connect: Helping colleges fine-tune their grant proposals
Rivera moved all the portable photonics equipment he could from the institute to the physics lab on the main campus in order to hold photonics classes. Many expensive pieces of equipment remain inaccessible at the institute, which is currently being cleaned to remove mold that followed water damage.
In addition to dealing with the massive cleanup, Puerto Rico residents have had the aggravation of standing in hours-long lines at banks, grocery stores and gas stations. Diaz González and Rivera both said their personal situations are much better than what people have endured where electricity and phone services still haven’t been restored.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
is an education writer based in Ohio.
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