Puerto Rico touts new plans for giant telescope

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- Puerto Rico plans to build a hotel and a planetarium as part of a $50 million project to attract more visitors to the world's largest single-dish radio telescope, officials said Tuesday.

It is the first major announcement from the new managing consortium for the Arecibo Observatory, which fought budget cuts last year that could have forced its closure.

The planetarium would be built within two years and the hotel within five years, Puerto Rico's Metropolitan University said. The school helps run the observatory with California-based SRI International, a nonprofit research group, and the Universities Space Research Association, a Maryland-based nonprofit founded under the National Academy of Sciences.

The plan is to convert an onsite cafeteria and staff housing into a hotel and restaurant to help promote the observatory as an educational tourism niche in the Caribbean, according to Puerto Rico's tourism office.

Funding will come from several government agencies and public universities.

Among the project's objectives is to create a doctoral program in astronomy and space science and to attract more than 50,000 students a year, said Federico Matheu, Metropolitan University president.

The 1,000-foot-wide (305-meter-wide) radio telescope that was featured in the movies "Contact" and "GoldenEye" currently attracts about 100,000 visitors a year.

In June, the National Science Foundation awarded a $42 million, five-year contract to the consortium to help finance studies at the observatory.

The radio telescope identified the first planets beyond the solar system, and it once sent a three-minute broadcast to the Hercules constellation in 1974 in a quest to contact alien civilizations.

The observatory, located on the island's north coast, opened in 1963 and was operated by Cornell University until last year.