UCF to manage Puerto Rico's historic Arecibo Observatory

$20 million National Science Foundation agreement puts UCF on new playing field

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

ORLANDO, Fla. - When it comes to planetary science, the University of Central Florida stepped into the big leagues Thursday with the announcement that the Orlando university will take over managing one of the world's largest telescopes: the Arcebio Observatory in Puerto Rico.

The U.S. National Science Foundation awarded UCF a five-year agreement that on April 1 will hand over the reins to the 18-acre facility which has a more than 50-year history of scientific discoveries. Arecibo was managed for 30 years by Cornell University and later by Stanford University.

"We're in the same sentence as Cornell," Ray Lugo, director of UCF's Florida Space Institute, said.

The partnership translates to a bigger name for UCF in planetary science. Between the university's Florida Space Institute and the physics department there are about 15 faculty members. With the addition of Arcebio, that number will double.

"I’m very excited for the planetary science group," Lugo said. "We go from a second-tier science program, (to where) we're clearly now in the upper tier."

After the announcement, Lugo said all of UCF's physics faculty members reached out to their counterparts at Arecibo and two UCF professors are currently working in Puerto Rico.

Radio astronomy is an area where UCF can expect to grow in its new role. Dr. Yan Fernandez is the university's only radio astronomer on staff. Lugo said once things get going every physics faculty member will gave their own proposals and science at the observatory.

UCF Vice President of Research Liz Klonoff said Arecibo will also be crucial in expanding UCF's already well-known work on asteroids. Faculty members have served on science teams for many NASA missions, including the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, currently chasing Asteroid Bennu for a sample collection.

The Arecibo Observatory includes an 18-acre reflector, that was once included in a James Bond movie.

"[Arecibo] is a necessary part to finding asteroids and where they are going," Klonoff said, referring to tracking objects that could one day impact Earth.

It's a triple-threat partnership with UCF, Yang Enterprises, Inc. and Puerto Rico's Universidad Metropolitana creating the Arecibo Observatory Management Team.

UCF will manage the overall science programs. Yang Enterprises, an Oviedo company led by UCF alum Tim Yang, will be responsible for maintenance and operations, which includes restoring the facility that was damaged during Hurricane Maria. Universidad Metropolitana will handle outreach to students and other events.

Arecibo Director Francisco Córdova will continue on leading staff at the facility located in the karst hills of western Puerto Rico.

“The Arecibo Observatory is a very special place,” Córdova said. “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.”

Klonoff said Arecibo will enable the university to play a vital role in helping the U.S. territory rebuild after Hurricane Maria.

"From our prospective it is more than just the science," Klonoff said. "The science is really import, the science certainly helps augment UCF's role in planetary science, but there is more than that."

After the storm, many university students and industry professionals left for Florida or elsewhere, creating a brain drain, Klonoff said.

The significance of Arecibio is ingrained in Puerto Rican culture and history. UCF had to receive approval from the country's historical board before they were granted the agreement from the NSF. That's something Klonoff said university officials don't take lightly.

"After Hurricane Maria, everyone was offering to take Puerto Rican students," Klonoff said of universities, including UCF. "We now have incentives for them to go home."

UCF plans to retain at least 95 percent of the staff currently working at Arecibo.

The disaster-aid funding approved by Congress last year included $16 million for the observatory to make repairs. The giant telescope was back up and running a few months after the September hurricane knocked out power to the entire island.

“This is a win-win-win,” Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. said. “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.”

Arecibo is working, but not at it's full potential, Lugo said. Right now it's the repairs are temporary, similar to a blue tarp before a full roof repair.

The $16 million will cover repairs to a large antenna that points at the telescope reflector and replacing a cable that's suspended above the huge dome. Lugo estimates the permanent  fixes will take up to four years.

Klonoff said the work UCF will do restoring and managing the facility known for discoveries, including detecting extragalactic radio pulses and tracking near-Earth objects, will give the university the ability to build a partnership that very few institution have the ability to do.

"It's just a very, very cool experience for our science, our students and the people of Puerto Rico as well," Klonoff said.

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