Puerto Rico's Arecibo Radio Telescope Suffers Hurricane Damage

Sep 25, 2017
Originally published on September 28, 2017 1:58 pm

When Hurricane Maria raked Puerto Rico last week as a Category 4 storm, it cut off electricity and communications island-wide, including at the Arecibo Observatory, one of the world's largest radio telescopes.

Initial reports, received via ham radio, indicated significant damage to some of the facility's scientific instruments. But Nicholas White, a senior vice president at the Universities Space Research Association, which helps run the observatory, tells NPR that the latest information is that a secondary 40-foot dish, thought destroyed, is still intact: "There was some damage to it, but not a lot," he says.

"So far, the only damage that's confirmed is that one of the line feeds on the antenna for one of the radar systems was lost," White says. That part was suspended high above the telescope's main 1,000-foot dish, which lost some panels when it shook loose and fell down.

As all this was happening, the observatory's staff sheltered in place. Reports are that everyone is OK. On Sunday, the team managed to post a defiant message to Facebook showing two of the staff displaying an outstretched Puerto Rican flag, with the giant dish in the background.

The observatory, which was used as the backdrop for the James Bond film GoldenEye (1995) and the 1997 movie Contact, starring Jodie Foster, was built in 1963 and has a number of firsts to its credit: it found the first planets around other stars, was the first to image an asteroid and discovered more exotic objects, such as the first binary pulsar.

And then there's the Arecibo Message, a famous signal sent from the radio telescope to M13, a global cluster some 25,000 light years away. For any sentient extraterrestrials there, it describes who we are and where the signal comes from. (Don't hold your breath though, as it'll be at least 50,000 years before we get an answer).

One of Arecibo's primary areas of research is near-Earth objects, or NEOs, those asteroids and asteroid-like chunks of rock that pass uncomfortably close.

Lance Benner, a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Ca., who studies NEOs, has traveled to Arecibo dozens of times and tells NPR it's probably the best place anywhere to do such research.

"Arecibo just has unparalleled sensitivity as a radar facility," he says. "It is by far the most sensitive planetary radar in the world."

But the aging facility's funding from the National Science Foundation has been under review for the past few years, and it's unclear how the cost of any repairs might affect that discussion.

Jim Ulvestad, acting assistant director for the National Science Foundation's directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences at NSF, tells NPR that Arecibo is doing "excellent science."

However, "if you look at the overall sweep of things that we're funding, we do have to make choices and we can't keep funding everything that's excellent."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Puerto Rico's north coast is home to the Arecibo Observatory and one of the world's largest radio telescopes. It normally hums 24/7, gathering faint signals from objects in outer space or bouncing radar off asteroids. But as NPR's Scott Neuman reports, Hurricane Maria has knocked the facility offline.

SCOTT NEUMAN, BYLINE: The Arecibo Observatory used to be the kind of place known mostly to scientists. That is until it was the backdrop for the 1997 film "Contact." Actor Jodie Foster played an astronomer whose team intercepts a mysterious signal from deep space.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CONTACT")

MAX MARTINI: (As Willie) I got it. I got it. I'm patched in.

JODIE FOSTER: (As Eleanor Arroway) All right. Let me hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF INDISCERNIBLE NOISE)

NEUMAN: Arecibo is a 1,000-foot dish sitting like a bowl in a giant sinkhole. As the observatory staff sheltered in place, the storm's 100-mile-per-hour winds whipped through the surrounding hills and rattled a huge antenna suspended above the main dish, sending it crashing down. Nicholas White is with the Universities Space Research Association, which helps run the observatory. He says it could have been a lot worse.

NICHOLAS WHITE: The only damage that's confirmed is one of the line feeds from the antenna for one of the radar systems that was lost and that fell and maybe punctured the dish in a few places.

NEUMAN: Arecibo was built in the '60s and has numerous firsts to its credit. It found the first planets around other stars. It was also the first telescope to image an asteroid. It still tracks so-called near-Earth objects that pass uncomfortably close. Lance Benner of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has traveled to Arecibo dozens of times. He says he'd like to see the observatory back online as soon as possible.

LANCE BENNER: Because Arecibo just has unparalleled sensitivity as a radar facility. I mean, it's by far the most sensitive planetary radar in the world.

NEUMAN: Until recently, the aging facility was the world's largest single-dish radio telescope. That's a status it lost to a new instrument in China. And even before Hurricane Maria, its funding was in question. Jim Ulvestad is with the National Science Foundation, which funds the facility. He says it's doing excellent science, but...

JIM ULVESTAD: If you look at the overall sweep of things that we are funding, we do have to make choices, and we can't keep funding everything that's excellent.

NEUMAN: The good news is that most of the telescope's equipment should still work once power is restored. Scott Neuman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE OCTOPUS PROJECT AND BLACK MOTH SUPER RAINBOW'S "TONY FACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.