Let me introduce you to Mel. He's a little stuffed koala that my wife and I take on our travels, and as it turns out we much prefer to take pictures of where Mel has been been than where we've been.Last week Mel found himself in Puerto Rico, where I was covering the 41st annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences. After the meeting concluded, we headed west from San Juan to visit Arecibo Observatory.
I'd been to Arecibo before, but on this particular visit I was keen to see the big dish in action. Luckily, that evening astronomer Marina Brozović (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) planned to "ping" a small near-Earth asteroid designated 1999 AP10 to try to determine its shape and surface characteristics.
These are challenging times for the observatory. In 2006, a top-level review for the National Science Foundation concluded that the facility should either find funding from non-NSF sources or be closed. Even though an National Research Council report released last month affirms that the observatory provides "unmatched precision and accuracy" in detecting asteroids or comets that could hit the Earth, as things stand now there'll be no more money to fund Arecibo's unique radar capability after fiscal year 2010. You can get more background via the Arecibo Science Advocacy Partnership (ASAP).
I'll have more to say about Arecibo's precarious future at a later date, but for now let's get back to Mel's excellent adventure. As the photos below attest, the observatory is an amazing place. In a few years it may no longer be the world's largest radio dish, but for now there's no place like it on Earth.
Mel thanks staffers Mike Nolan and Ellen Howell, who paved the way for his visit and also served as gracious hosts.