Before we went to the Island of Puerto Rico for our honeymoon, I’d made a list of sights that were must sees. The enormous radio telescope was one we didn’t want to miss. The Arecibo Observatory has nestled in the karst* region of Puerto Rico since 1963. (*A karst is a natural sinkhole.) For 50 years it was the largest radio telescope in the world. It is 1000 feet (305 m) in diameter. Now, China has a larger one, 500 m in diameter. The Arecibo telescope is used for atmospheric science, radio and radar astronomy. The official title of the observatory is the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC). In these days of computer communication, researchers can run their experiments from just about anywhere in the world.
Observatories are most often near the equator because they have better access to all parts of the sky. Puerto Rico is along the northern portion of the equator. The telescope has been used to make ground breaking discoveries; with this powerful device in 1964 scientists determined that Mercury had a rotation of 59 days, not 88 as previously believed, in 1974 first binary pulsar detected (earned Hulse and Taylor a Nobel Prize), in1981 data collected produced the first radar maps of Venus, and in 1989 the first extrasolar planets were found. Arecibo was utilized for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) as well.
Three pylons, between 81 and 111 m tall (265-365 ft) suspend the 18 cables to the receiver (that looks like half an egg). Recently one of the cables snapped and damaged the receptor dish below. On August 10, the force of the blow from the cable made a 30 m slash in the dish. Fortunately, no one was hurt. The University of Central Florida (UCF) manages the radio telescope and is working to repair it. The telescope was funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA, but their contribution is diminishing. UCF, Universidad Metropolitana de Puerto Rico (UMET) and Yang Enterprises are in charge of this important research tool. Although maintenance costs are high for the aging telescope, scientists think it is a very worthwhile investment.
The visitors’ center opened in 1996, three years before we visited. We were fortunate enough to be able to see a film about the telescope in their theater. Arecibo is quite the movie star. The telescope was featured in Contact (1997), James Bond Goldeneye (1995), in TV shows, video games and novels. Standing at the guardrail, looking down into the enormous dish gave me a sense of wonder I’d experienced only with the beauty of nature. Humans have created something truly spectacular there, more than that they are using it to widen our world, see past our solar system, and find new life.
What is an object or technology made by humans that fills you with wonder?
Gracias for visiting Fake Flamenco! I appreciate your comments and blues sonnets. ¡Olé! –Rebecca