OPINION: Arecibo Observatory should be rebuilt
After experiencing a series of misfortunes ranging from earthquakes to hurricanes to budget cuts, the National Science Foundation‘s (NSF) Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, both a scientific and cultural icon, was seriously damaged when an auxiliary cable broke on Monday, August 10 at 2:45 am.
For the sake of its continuing science contributions and its cultural value, the observatory should be rebuilt and restored to its full capabilities.
Built in 1963, Arecibo is now the second largest radio telescope in the world. The only radio telescope that is bigger, China’s Five hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), is still unable to transmit radio waves as powerfully as Arecibo.
Located within a rainforest, Arecibo is one of the world’s most famous telescopes, and it has been involved in a wide range of astronomical discoveries. Its 1,000-foot dish is 20 acres wide. Arecibo plays a major role in detecting potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids and comets by sending radio signals into space to image these objects.
Part of the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav), the radio telescope attempts to detect gravitational waves by monitoring pulsars, stellar remnants with powerful magnetic fields that send out radiation beams. Gravitational waves are produced by the mergers of two pulsars or two black holes.
In 2016, Arecibo detected a repeating fast radio burst, a series of powerful radio waves coming from outside the Milky Way and not well understood.
The observatory has not only played a key role in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). In 1974, it was used to broadcast a coded message in the direction of the M13 globular cluster, located 21,000 light years away. That message, the most powerful ever sent into space, was formulated by scientists Frank Drake and Carl Sagan and included representations of the human form and various chemical formulas.
Arecibo is also well-known in popular culture, having been featured in “Goldeneye,” a 1995 James Bond movie, and in “Contact,” a 1997 film, in which Jodie Foster’s character uses it to search for extraterrestrial life.
In addition to being located in an area frequented by hurricanes, Arecibo is in a tectonically active area, which is the reason it has experienced earthquakes, with the latest having occurred in late 2019 and early 2020.
Damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017, the observatory was still undergoing repairs when the latest accident happened.
Beginning in 2006, Arecibo‘s budget was drastically cut by the NSF. Due to intense efforts by scientists and other supporters, the foundation decided in 2017 to preserve the observatory but reduced its annual budget from $12 million to $2 million.
Arecibo was able to make up the shortfall by a $19 million grant from NASA to continue monitoring potentially hazardous near-Earth objects. The observatory also received $12.3 million from NSF to repair damage from the hurricane and improve the facility.
In this latest disaster, an auxiliary, three-inch-thick cable that supported the platform suspended over the reflector dish broke, then hit the Gregorian Dome, slashing a 100-foot-wide gash into the main reflector dish. The cables were expected to last another 15 to 20 years, and the reason for the accident remains unknown.
Because the accident occurred in the middle of the night, no one was hurt.
Observatory director Francisco Cordova said staff members are assessing the damage and doing everything possible to ensure Arecibo‘s structural integrity. He admitted damage from both Maria and Tropical Storm Isaias could have contributed to the incident.
Repairing the observatory may take as long as a year, especially since Puerto Rico is still in peak hurricane season.
“We don’t expect to find damage inside the Gregorian dome. Certainly, there is damage to the exterior aluminum panels, [but] that was not done to the actual room inside the Gregorian that has all of the critical equipment,” Cordova emphasized.
While the potential source of funding for the necessary repair remains unclear, support for the observatory and its researchers is strong in the community.
From fast radio bursts, to near-Earth objects, to SETI, to pulsars, Arecibo is home to one of the most diverse arrays of astronomical projects. Each of the institutions that have benefited from it have a vested interest in restoring it to its full glory.
EDITORIAL CORRECTION: This article has been edited to remove statements and sentiments which were attributed to Rob Margetta (National Science Foundation) and Ramon Lugo (University of Central Florida Space Institute).
Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.