Famed Arecibo Observatory survives Hurricane Maria's lashing of Puerto Rico
While the vast majority of Puerto Ricans are living in a technologically deprived state without power and poor communications, there’s one high-tech oasis on the island that wasn’t blown back to the dark ages by Hurricane Maria.
The Arecibo Observatory, a massive radio telescope built in 1963, featured in films and nestled in the mountains of central Puerto Rico, was raked by the eye of the storm but survived almost unscathed.
Within seven days, the observatory was back up and running on generators — tracking pulsars and receiving data from the outer reaches of the galaxy — even as its staff (some of them now homeless) still couldn’t make a cell phone call to San Juan.
That the scientific complex survived the storm, and is using its resources to help in recovery efforts, is one of the few good news stories on an island in desperate need of them.
The heart of the observatory is a silvery 1,000-foot diameter dish that sits a valley and gives Arecibo bragging rights to being the largest operational single-dish radio telescope in the world. That title is being hotly contested, however, as China is currently running trials on a 1,650-foot diameter telescope that was built last year but isn’t considered fully operational just yet.
As Francisco Cordova, the observatory’s director, took a break recently from helping distribute aid, he admired the scale of the machine. It’s composed of more than 38,778 individual reflective panels that bounce radio waves from the cosmos at an array of antennae that hang 435 feet above the ground.
The whole contraption looks precarious, like a massive frisbee ready to be flung out to sea with a bit of wind.
“The structure is deceiving,” said Cordova, an employee of SRI International, which runs the base under a contract with the National Science Foundation. “When you see it at first it looks very fragile, but it’s actually very resistant.”
When Maria slammed into the installation on Sept. 20, packing 110-mph winds, the storm tore off a few panels and broke one of the complex’s two 430 megahertz radars. But the telescope was left fully operational.
Most non-scientists know the observatory from its star turns in Hollywood. The telescope played a central role in Contact, the 1997 movie based on a Carl Sagan novel and starring Jodi Foster.
In that film, the telescope receives communications from extraterrestrials 26 light-years away. In reality, in 1974, the telescope transmitted the “Arecibo Message” — a series of encoded pictures of our galaxy, man and the telescope — to the M13 star cluster 21,000 light-years away in hopes of engaging intelligent life. (That message is still has to travel some 20,957 years before it reaches its intended target.)
The dish played a sillier role in the James Bond movie Goldeneye (1995), where it appears to emerge from a lake in Cuba.
“You see James Bond running all over the platform and then sliding down the panels, which you obviously can’t do,” Cordova said. “But it was very cool.”
In real world, however, the observatory plays an even more dramatic role: potentially saving the planet from outright destruction.
The observatory’s powerful planetary radar tracks asteroids and other near-earth objects and can plot their trajectory a century out, said Nicholas White, the senior vice president for science at the University Space Research Association, in Columbia, Md., one of the entities that manages the observatory.
Under a NASA program, Arecibo and other observatories are charged with giving us earthlings notice if we’re about to get slammed by a killer asteroid, in the hope that we can do something about it.
“Arecibo plays a critical role in that it has one of the most powerful radars on the planet for this purpose,” White said. “Dinosaurs were wiped out by an object hitting the earth and that could happen again.”
But it’s the observatory’s more earth-bound properties that have made it relevant to Puerto Ricans post-Maria.
As of Monday, 80 percent of the island’s 3.4 million residents still don’t have electricity, a third don’t have water and 40 percent don’t have reliable communications.
That’s turned the Arecibo complex, which has its own power supply and water well, into something of a haven.
The installation is distributing 14,000 gallons of drinking water a day to surrounding neighborhoods. And FEMA is using the observatory’s helipad to drop off food and other critical supplies for the island’s hard-to-reach central areas.
The police and power authorities are piggy-backing on the observatory’s radio repeaters. And five employees who lost their homes to the storm are now living on site with their families.
The science done at the facility hasn’t entirely escaped the storm either. While the telescope is functioning, a diesel and gas shortage on the island means the observatory isn’t running some of its high-frequency observations that consume lots of power.
“We don’t want to use the diesel right now when there are needs at hospitals,” Cordova explained.
While the observatory survived the hurricane, a bigger threat might be in Washington. The National Science Foundation, which provides the bulk of the observatory’s funding, is proposing to cut its budget from $8 million to $2 million over the next five years.
Supporters say the Cold War construction is still doing the type of cutting edge research that helped Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1993.
Using the telescope, in 1974, the men discovered a binary pulsar or, as the committee put it, “a kind of rapidly rotating cosmic beacon with a mass somewhat greater than the sun and a radius of about ten kilometers” and where a human being would weigh “hundred thousand million times more than on earth.”
Those kind of mind-bending breakthroughs are still possible at Arecibo, White said.
“The observatory was built in the early ‘60s but it has been renewed several times over the years and remains state-of-the-art,” White said. “It’s still producing cutting edge... Nobel-Prize winning science.”