A proposal to replace the giant radio telescope at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico with a new facility suggests it could be used for tracking space objects as well as for scientific research.
Plans for a potential replacement of the 305-meter radio telescope at Arecibo, whose observing platform collapsed Dec. 1, are still in their early phases. One proposal, developed by observatory staff and submitted to the National Science Foundation (NSF) in a recent white paper, calls for replacing the giant dish with an array of up to 1,000 small dishes, each nine meters across, on a platform spanning the current dish.
“As we move into the future, we feel that phased arrays are probably the right way to go, rather than continue to focus on large single-dish elements,” said Francisco Cordova, director of Arecibo Observatory, during a presentation at a Jan. 21 meeting of a committee supporting the ongoing planetary science decadal survey by the National Academies.
The concept in the white paper would double the sensitivity of the single-dish radio telescope and increase sky coverage by 250% compared to the fixed dish, as well as incorporate a new radar system. “From our perspective as the operator, we feel that the 305-meter was really an invaluable tool,” he said. “But, any future visions of the site really need to be centered around the development of a next-generation instrument.”
That new concept, Cordova said, could serve applications beyond astronomy and planetary science. One of the potential applications he listed on a slide in his presentation was space situational awareness (SSA).
“That particular capability really comes embedded into the concept of the next-generation telescope,” he said when asked by the committee about SSA. There has been strong interest by the “DOD community” for years in using Arecibo for SSA. “We’ve actually had many plans to incorporate those kinds of capabilities previously into the 305-meter, but we weren’t able to do it at the capacity we wanted to because of the limited sky coverage.”
The increased sky coverage of the proposed array, Cordova suggested, made it more useful for SSA applications. “That is something that would be baked into the instrument,” he said. “It is an area where we’ve gotten a lot of interest throughout the years, so we want to make sure that is also part of its capabilities.”
Cordova didn’t elaborate on that past interest by the Defense Department in Arecibo for SSA activities. The military has long operated its own radars for tracking objects, such as the new Space Fence. One company, LeoLabs, has established its own set of radars to support space traffic management services it offers commercially. None of these facilities are on the same scale as Arecibo.