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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