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Arecibo Observatory
The Arecibo Observatory has a 1,000-foot-wide radio dish built into Puerto Rico’s karst terrain. (NAIC Arecibo Observatory / NSF Photo)

The 1,000-foot Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, made famous by such movies as “Contact” and the James Bond thriller “Goldeneye,” will be under new management.

Today the National Science Foundation announced that the University of Central Florida has begun the transition process for taking on operation and management of the observatory. “NSF is currently negotiating the operations and management award with UCF,” the federal agency said in a statement.

The handover is aimed at reducing the federal outlay for the Arecibo Observatory, which has been struggling with squeezed budgets in recent years.

NSF says it anticipates its contribution to the facility’s upkeep will decrease over time from the current level of about $8 million per year to about $2 million by the end of fiscal year 2022. (NASA also provides more than $3 million in annual funding.)

The university will lead a consortium in partnership with Universidad Metropolitana in San Juan, Puerto Rico; and the engineering company Yang Enterprises Inc. in Oviedo, Fla.

“UCF’s oversight of this crucial resource further solidifies our university as a leader in space-related research,” the university’s president, John Hitt, said in a news release. “The observatory will provide a valuable new dimension to space science at UCF while creating more academic opportunities for students and faculty at UCF, in Puerto Rico and beyond.”

In a statement, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., called the deal a “win-win-win” for UCF and Florida as well as for Puerto Rico and the thousands of visiting scientists who conduct observations at Arecibo. (I was a visitor 15 years ago.)

The management plan calls for upgrading the capabilities of the telescope — which spends a lot more time tracking asteroids, pulsars, fast radio bursts (and the occasional weird signal) than it does looking for alien messages. Ray Lugo, head of UCF’s Florida Space Institute, told Science that the consortium hopes to attract more business related to such applications as asteroid mining and military sensor testing.

Outside the science community, Arecibo is perhaps best-known as the place where Jodie Foster’s character began her search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or where James Bond (played by Pierce Brosnan) dodged death in the climactic scene of “Goldeneye.”

Last year, Arecibo went through a real-world, life-and-death drama when it suffered Hurricane Maria’s blows. The facility sustained significant damage, but fortunately, the observatory’s staff members were unharmed and able to help out with relief efforts.

For most of its 55-year history, Arecibo reigned as the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope — but that title was passed on to China’s Five-Hundred-Meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, in 2016.

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