You’ve likely seen photos – or a movie, or played a video game – featuring Arecibo Observatory’s radio telescope in Puerto Rico. It was the world’s largest single-aperture telescope from its completion in 1963 until July 2016, when China completed its Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST). Still, the big radio telescope at Arecibo – built into a natural depression in the landscape of this Caribbean island – is used for professional research not just in radio astronomy, but also for radar and atmospheric studies. And, in recent years, as multiple hurricanes have swept across the Caribbean, including Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, it’s been more of a struggle to keep the telescope in good repair. That is why the U.S. Congress has now supported emergency supplemental funds for the site. The new funds ($12.3 million, to be used over four years) represent an investment in Arecibo’s future.
Arecibo received a $2 million grant in June 2018, not long after Irma and María ripped through the island and damaged the facility. According to a statement from the University of Central Florida (UCF), which operates the facility for the U.S. National Science Foundation:
Those funds were used to make emergency repairs such as fixing the catwalk that leads to the reflectors suspended above the 305-meter [1,000-foot] dish. In addition, buildings were repaired, generators were serviced, and first responder equipment was replaced. This funding also enabled the facility to prepare for the 2019 hurricane season.
Scientists gathered earlier this year to discuss future objectives of the observatory. No doubt they talked about projects that needed to be undertaken at the site, and that can now be undertaken thanks to the new grant, including:
– Repairing one of the suspension cables holding the primary telescope platform, ensuring long-term structural integrity of one of the main structural elements of the telescope.
– Recalibrating the primary reflector, which will restore the observatory’s sensitivity at higher frequencies.
– Aligning the Gregorian Reflector, improving current calibration and pointing.
– Installing a new control system for S band radar, which is part of the microwave band of the electromagnetic spectrum.
– Replacing the modulator on the 430 MHz transmitter, increasing consistency of power output and data quality.
– Improving the telescope’s pointing controls and data tracking systems.
UCF also said:
Each of these projects is essential to the work conducted at the facility, which includes research in the areas of planetary radar, astronomy and space and atmospheric sciences, administrators say. The telescope has assisted in the understanding of gravitational waves, the theory of relativity, the discovery of new planets, and other research. The instruments also play an important role in monitoring asteroids that could pose a hazard to Earth.
Arecibo also has a place in popular culture. You might know it for the 1974 Arecibo radio message to interstellar space. Aimed toward globular star cluster M13, it carried basic information about humanity and Earth skyward, setting off a controversy over whether we want extraterrestrials to find us, which has raged on ever since.
Or you might know Arecibo from the 1997 film “Contact,” from a wonderful novel of the same name by Carl Sagan. In the book and movie, Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway, a SETI scientist played by Jodie Foster, finds strong evidence of extraterrestrial life while seated in an Arecibo control room.
Or you might know it from the SETI@home project, a scientific experiment, based at UC Berkeley, that lets citizen scientists help search for ETs. Arecibo began collecting data for SETI@home in 1999.
Or you might know Arecibo in some other way. For its research in space and atmospheric sciences and its multiple roles in human culture, Arecibo holds a place in the hearts of many.
It’s great that they’re fixing it!
Bottom line: Arecibo Observatory will receive $12.3 million in emergency supplemental funds, administered by the U.S. National Science Foundation, for necessary repairs over the coming four years.