The observatory that sent the world’s first message to aliens has a shaky future.
Th Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico features a 1,000-foot-wide dish and is best known for its research into communicating with possible extraterrestrial life. But the National Science Foundation has run out of funds to support Arecibo, the AP reports.
The agency wants the observatory to remain open, and thus announced Wednesday that it’s accepting proposals from those interested in providing funding and assuming operations at the site. The proposals must be submitted by late April, but Ralph Gaume, acting division director for the foundation’s Division of Astronomical Sciences, told AP that it’s possible that none of the proposals will be chosen, which means the foundation may have to suspend Arecibo’s operations, turn it into an educational center, or shut it down.
The National Science Foundation will make a decision about the Arecibo by late 2017, but if the Arecibo’s operations are suspended or shut down, it will undoubtedly hurt SETI research.
The Arecibo telescope can send powerful signals into the universe, and it can listen for signs of extraterrestrial life as well. In fact, Arecibo sent the first-ever message into space targeted for extraterrestrial life back in 1974. This 1,679-bit message is comprised of a series of simple pictures meant to symbolize humanity. If aliens ever stumble upon it, they’ll have a glimpse of what exactly we Earthlings are all about.
In addition, the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo has found 30 exoplanets that are potentially habitable. None of them are remotely like Earth, but it’s possible there’s life living on those planets.
Last May, biologists and linguists even met in Puerto Rico to discuss how humans might be able to communicate with intelligent aliens.
Besides detecting and communicating with aliens, Arecibo can also observe asteroids, study solar eruptions, and detect Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) — high-intensity radio signals that zip through space at high speeds. Some people say FRBs are aliens trying to send us a message, though it’s much more likely they come from galaxies far away from Earth. Last March, Arecibo picked up an FRB called 121102.
More recently, Arecibo’s prominent status and advanced capabilities have been threatened by larger, more powerful telescopes, like the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) in China, which is now the world’s largest radio telescope. Like Arecibo, FAST also aims to search for extraterrestrial life.
Nevertheless, if Arecibo is shut down, it would be a devastating blow to SETI research everywhere — especially at a time when interest in extraterrestrial life has never been greater.