Just a few minutes ago, I got a notification from Space.com stating that the Arecibo Observatory will be, sadly, decommissioned due to extensive damage to its structure. So, with the loss of one of the world's largest telescopes, we will be put at a setback in space exploration and astronomy. So, what will succeed Arecibo and when will this happen?


There's no simple answer. In the immediate future, different radio telescopes around the world will pick up the slack in various ways; how that happens will depend on the needs of individual observers and collaborations. Unless someone was to build an identical observatory at the same latitude as Arecibo, with the same frequency range, receiver options and field of view . . . we'll have to spread out the observing. Given that we didn't really expect to lose Arecibo for more than about a year$^{\dagger}$, there are a lot of things up in the air. Insert "probably" and "maybe" into this answer wherever you please.

I do pulsar timing, so I'll talk about what a future without Arecibo might look like from our perspective. My collaboration's two main instruments were Arecibo and the 100-meter Green Bank Telescope (GBT), with roughly half of the observing time at Arecibo and half at the GBT. There aren't firm plans in place for the exact strategy we'll take going forward, but we'll have to decrease our observing cadence at the GBT (i.e. how often we observe certain pulsars) so we can use some of the time to observe pulsars we'd normally observe using Arecibo. So the GBT can take some of the load, but as we only have a finite amount of observing time, that impacts our other observations. We'll likely have to decrease the cadence of observations and the number of pulsars we monitor regularly.

Pulsar timing arrays will also have options with other existing instruments in the immediate future. A key one is the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) in Canada. The folks at CHIME will actually be able to observe all of our northern hemisphere pulsars (CHIME Pulsar Collaboration, 2017), which is excellent. In the short-term, CHIME will slightly lessen the burden of losing Arecibo. We've also done a little bit of timing with the Very Large Array, although I don't think that'll be a major player in the future.

That brings us to telescopes currently in the planning stages or under construction. The DSA-2000 (Hallinan et al. 2019) will hopefully see first light in the late 2020s and would likely become a major part of our ongoing observations. The Square Kilometer Array will also be extremely important for radio astronomy as a whole - I don't know whether we in particular will be using it a lot. The SKA should also reach completion in the next decade.

These are just the current potential options from my corner of the astronomical world - and they're quite tentative. Arecibo was our most-used screwdriver in the toolbox, so we've certainly been hit. We'll hopefully be able to somewhat supplement the GBT with CHIME and ideally DSA-2000 a decade from now - so in that sense, those will effectively succeed Arecibo for our observations. In reality, all that means is that we won't lose quite as much of our observing capacity - but it doesn't come close to making up for the loss. Other collaborations and astronomers will presumably increase their usage at the observatories that are best equipped for their observations, depending on frontend/backend requirements and field of view.

It's not going to be fun. We'll be set back. But science will go on. We'll figure it out.

$^{\dagger}$ This isn't totally true - a scenario where we lose Arecibo had already been studied in detail. But . . . I think a lot of folks felt that it was more likely that it would be out of commission for a bit but could be salvaged in some way, and hopefully brought back online before too long. This was not the Thursday we were expecting.

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    $\begingroup$ The SCIENCE must go on... $\endgroup$ – fasterthanlight Nov 19 '20 at 21:50
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    $\begingroup$ How about LOFAR? $\endgroup$ – gerrit Nov 20 '20 at 8:27
  • $\begingroup$ And, in another 5 years or so, SKA. $\endgroup$ – Mast Nov 20 '20 at 8:54
  • $\begingroup$ Don't you mean "100-meter Green Bank Telescope"? I would just make the change but it needs to be 6 characters, I think. $\endgroup$ – Mark Foskey Nov 21 '20 at 0:38
  • $\begingroup$ @MarkFoskey Thank you! You're absolutely correct. I had been talking to someone about its predecessor, the 300-foot telescope, and some wires got crossed in my head. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Nov 21 '20 at 0:44

As you said, the loss of Arecibo will definitely put a dent in the field of radio astronomy. As for what will help take its place - there are a couple options.

Green Bank Observatory has been and still is quite a widely-used radio observatory. It helps in many initiatives, not limited to but including Breakthrough Listen. I know there are many people who work at/with Arecibo who are connected in various ways to Green Bank, so I imagine some of the observational responsibilities/tasks or projects might end up in the hands of Green Bank.

In addition, the Allen Telescope Array is currently undergoing refurbishment to be used on a larger scale for observing various radio sources - eg. FRB's. I would think that in the near future, when things get up to scale and ready for use, the ATA would also help fill in the void that the loss of Arecibo has created.

I think it's also worth mentioning FAST - China's Five Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Telescope. The name is a bit misleading, since the aperture that the telescope uses isn't 500 meters in diameter, but it has been discovering pulsars at a pretty fast (pun intended) rate over the past few years. You can see their discoveries here.

And, as I'm sure many of you in the radio astronomy world have heard, the Square Kilometer Array is projected to have its first light in 2027. It will be the largest and most powerful/sensitive radio telescope ever created when it is finished, and will most certainly be invaluable to the field of radio astronomy.


The big loss is to radar astronomy. Arecibo was one of only two radar telescopes in the world in regular use, and was by far the more powerful: a 300 meter antenna and megawatt transmitter, versus Goldstone's 70-meter antenna and 500-kilowatt transmitter. I'm not aware of any plans for successors: FAST can't be fitted with a transmitter without a complete reconstruction of the receiver platform, and none of the other dishes even comes close to Arecibo's size.

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    $\begingroup$ This is slightly related, in as much as it references its available transmit power: Has DSS-43 ever been used in high power mode (>>20 kW) for an emergency situation? you are welcome to add an answer there explaining that the high power capability is not there only for emergency spacecraft communications, but is used regularly for radar astronomy. Until recent days that had never occurred to me. I think you answer will be well-received (pun intended). $\endgroup$ – uhoh Nov 21 '20 at 3:18

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