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Assistant Pro­fessor of Physics Timothy Dolch leads Hillsdale student projects involving Arecibo tele­scope obser­va­tions.
Timothy Dolch | Courtesy

With federal funding under review, the Arecibo Obser­vatory in Puerto Rico, home to a tele­scope 305 meters in diameter that con­tributes sig­nif­i­cantly to both radio and radar astronomy, could face major budget cuts that could threaten its future.

If the tele­scope were to lose funding, schools such as Hillsdale College could be pre­vented from using the resources the obser­vatory has to offer, including the world’s largest single-dish radio tele­scope.

Timothy Dolch, assistant pro­fessor of physics, said the potential issue is a bit alarming since the Arecibo tele­scope has played a large role throughout his career in radio astronomy.

“You have to wonder if this process is wise in the long term, to always put funding toward the next new big thing and not sustain the things that are already around,” Dolch said. “The truth is, to make new obser­va­tions, you don’t always need a new facility.”

Built in 1963, the Arecibo Obser­vatory has advanced astronomy and physics through numerous dis­cov­eries, including the dis­covery of the first planet outside the solar system and the obser­vation of a pair of neutron stars which pro­duced grav­i­ta­tional waves, according to Dolch. This par­ticular dis­covery won a Nobel prize in 1993.

While Dolch has visited the obser­vatory mul­tiple times, his stu­dents have been able to use the tele­scope through remote obser­vation in the physics department’s Radio Tele­scope Remote Command Center.

“We log into Arecibo quite fre­quently and we actually control it,” Dolch said. “Stu­dents from this com­puter log in and press a button to make the whole thing go, and they have con­tributed to these obser­va­tions that are searching for grav­i­ta­tional waves.”

Their obser­va­tions have been pri­marily for the North American Nanohertz Obser­vatory for Grav­i­ta­tional Waves, or NANOGrav, a project that con­nects astro­physi­cists in North America studying low-fre­quency grav­i­ta­tional waves through pulsars.

Thirteen Hillsdale stu­dents have worked with the Arecibo tele­scope, and their involvement ranges from obser­va­tions and research projects to summer pro­grams and inde­pendent studies.

“I think this has really been a unique oppor­tunity for them,” Dolch said. “It has worked out well with Hillsdale in par­ticular, because the tele­scope is, in a sense, my lab­o­ratory. I don’t need to build a lab­o­ratory here — as far as involvement with research, we just have to log in.”

One such student is junior history major Ellen Friesen, who said she found a deeper meaning of the liberal arts through her par­tic­i­pation in the telescope’s obser­va­tions. Friesen said most people don’t think of science and math when they think about the liberal arts, but these dis­ci­plines are important for a holistic edu­cation.

“A huge chunk of the liberal arts comes from math and science, and this is coming from a person who is not a math or science major,” she said.

Friesen said she appre­ciated that the physics department allowed her to work on the project even as a non-science major.

“There is still value for me to do it because it helps me get that broader picture of how the uni­verse works,” Friesen said.

The Kitt Peak National Obser­vatory in Arizona, home to the Mayall 4-meter tele­scope, faced a similar funding issue from the National Science Foun­dation, the Department of Energy, and NASA after funding leveled off. Though private orga­ni­za­tions were able to pur­chase the tele­scope, the pur­chase pre­vented schools such as Hillsdale from using the Mayall tele­scope.

While the Arecibo obser­vatory is safe for the time being, its future remains uncertain.

“Toward 2025, the Arecibo Obser­vatory will con­tinue to be rec­og­nized as a world-leading radio astronomy, solar system radar, and atmos­pheric physics facility, con­tributing highly rel­evant data to support dis­covery, inno­vation and the advancement of science for the well-being of humankind,” the observatory’s mission statement said.

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Josephine von Dohlen is a junior from Minneapolis, Minnesota who appreciates the communicative power of journalism and the community that it fosters. A graduate of the National Journalism Center in Washington, D.C., she has previously interned with Catholic News Service. At Hillsdale, she is part of the Dow Journalism Program and a major in American Studies. Email: jvondohlen@hillsdale.edu