Long Live Arecibo
Three months ago I dedicated a post to the world famous radio telescope in Puerto Rico. Touring that site was a highlight of the end of our honeymoon on the Isla del Encanto (Island of Enchantment). The largest telescope I had seen in person, it was truly amazing in its grandeur. The dish lay snug in a karst, four bold pylons holding the instrument platform above it. I stared in wonder. When I saw the movie Contact on video, I was reminded of our bright eyed visit there.
For over 50 years Arecibo was the largest radio telescope at 1000 feet in diameter, before China’s “FAST” in 2016.
Working at Arecibo, astronomers discovered the true orbit of Mercury; 59 rather than 88 days. Drs. Taylor and Hulse won a Nobel Prize for their work on pulsars and gravitational waves in 1993 with information from the Puerto Rican observatory. The first exoplanet, first binary pulsar, and a dark matter galaxy were all found using the Arecibo radio receiver.
December 1, a little over a week ago, the dream of continued scientific discovery came crashing down. I was aghast when I read about it. After seeing the video of the collapse, the snapping cables, the free fall of the signal feed platform. I cried like a favorite celebrity had lost their life. True, in August and in November, a cable had snapped. I still had hope. However, it was unfounded.
Back in the 60’s, when Cornell University started the program to build the Observatory, the funding was in part from the US military. Arecibo was to contribute to the research and development of ballistic missile defense. The radar investment was to track cold war missiles. Once time neutralized that threat, federal money for the project dried up. Neglect set in.
Four years ago the University of Central Florida along with Universidad Ana G. Méndez and Yang Enterprises took control of the observatory. The yearly operations cost was $12 million dollars. The additional price tag for repairs was steep. Engineers studied the problem and realized that all the cables must be replaced, which could not be done safely. November 19, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced it would decommission the telescope.
I’d like to turn back time and impose a rigorous maintenance program to the Arecibo structure. I feel sick to my stomach when I see the video. How can we let this icon disappear? Why was it allowed to fail? Was it lack of NSF resources? Or was it US Presidents who think science research isn’t that important? We could also say it was the people who voted them in.
Arecibo was a symbol, an inspiration to three generations of Puerto Rican scientists. Their hopes of studying astronomy there are dashed. Astronomers all across the world are in mourning.
Smashed to smithereens isn’t too strong a phrase for the effect of the instrument platform fall on the dish.
The destruction of Arecibo reminds me of the US response to Covid, too little, too late, no thought of the consequences. Why do we fear science in the US? Will it tell us news we don’t want to hear? Would SETI* contact extraterrestrials who possess intelligence far surpassing us? Currently, that seems highly likely, the ET-smarter-than-we-are-part.
As Neil deGrasse Tyson says, aliens may look down at the earth and say, “No intelligent life down there.” Oops, we just proved that right, again.
What do you think?
*SETI is the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a research program that sent and sought to receive information through the Arecibo radio telescope.