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The Collapse of Puerto Rico’s Iconic Telescope

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Daniel Alarcón writes in the New Yorker:

Just before eight in the morning on December 1st of last year, Ada Monzón was at the Guaynabo studios of WAPA, a television station in Puerto Rico, preparing to give a weather update, when she got a text from a friend. Jonathan Friedman, an aeronomer who lives near the Arecibo Observatory, about an hour and a half from San Juan, had sent her a photo, taken from his sister-in-law’s back yard, of the brilliant blue Caribbean sky and the green, heavily forested limestone hills. In the picture, a thin cloud of dust hovered just above the tree line; the image was notable not for what it showed but for what was missing. On a normal day—on any day before that one, in fact—a shot from that back yard would have captured Arecibo’s nine-hundred-ton radio-telescope platform, with its massive Gregorian dome, floating improbably over the valley, suspended from cables five hundred feet above the ground. Accompanying the photo was Friedman’s message, which read, simply, “Se cayó ”—“It fell.”

Every year since Arecibo’s completion, in 1963, hundreds of researchers from around the world had taken turns pointing the radio telescope toward the sky to glean the secrets of the universe. It had played a role in the fields of radio astronomy and atmospheric, climate, and planetary science, as well as in the search for exoplanets and the study of near-Earth asteroids that, were they to collide with our planet, could end life as we know it. There were even biologists working at Arecibo, studying how plant life developed in the dim light beneath the telescope’s porous dish.

Monzón, along with thousands of other scientists and radio-astronomy enthusiasts for whom Arecibo held a special meaning, had been on high alert for weeks, ever since two of its cables had failed, in August and in early November. Although the telescope seemed to have survived Hurricane Maria, in 2017, without serious damage, the earthquakes that followed had perhaps weakened components that were already suffering from decades of wear and tear. It was, in many ways, a death foretold. Even so, when the inevitable finally occurred, Monzón was stunned.

Monzón is a presence in Puerto Rico, a much beloved and trusted figure, as meteorologists sometimes are in places where reporting on extreme weather can be a matter of life and death. She’d covered Hurricane Maria and its harrowing aftermath, as well as dozens of lesser but still dangerous storms and the resulting floods or landslides. She’d done a Facebook Live through a magnitude-6.4 earthquake. Still, she told me, the end of Arecibo was somehow harder, more personal. “It was devastating,” she said. “One of the most difficult moments of my life.” Arecibo, she added, “was a place of unity for everyone who loves science on this island, and all of us who truly love Puerto Rico.”

For more than half a century, Arecibo was the world’s largest single-aperture telescope, its global reputation built on grand discoveries that matched its size: from the observatory, the presence of ice on the poles of Mercury was first detected, the duration of that planet’s rotation was determined, and the surface of Venus was mapped; the first binary pulsar, later used to test Einstein’s theory of relativity, was found by astronomers working at Arecibo. (They were awarded a Nobel Prize for the discovery in 1993.)

In 1974, a team led by an astronomer at Cornell University named Frank Drake (which included Carl Sagan) put together the Arecibo Message, a radio transmission that was beamed to a cluster of stars more than twenty-five thousand light-years away. The message was meant to celebrate human technological advancement, and, supposedly, to be decoded and read by extraterrestrials. Not all radio telescopes can both receive and transmit: this was one more way in which Arecibo was special. The message itself—a series of bits and squares containing the numbers one through ten, the atomic numbers of certain elements, and a graphic of a double helix, among other scientific touchstones—was mostly symbolic, to mark the occasion of an upgrade to the telescope’s capabilities, but it captured the public imagination nonetheless. In theory, were any alien life-forms to respond, we earthlings could discern their answer at Arecibo.

Each year, more than eighty thousand visitors came to the observatory, including tourists from all over the world and twenty thousand Puerto Rican schoolchildren, who had their first brush with the cosmos there. The 1995 James Bond film “GoldenEye” featured an absurd fight scene that was shot at Arecibo, which culminated in Pierce Brosnan’s Bond dropping a scowling villain to his death from the suspended platform; two years later, in the film “Contact,” Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey shared a kiss beneath a starry sky with the Gregorian dome as a backdrop. “If you had to tell someone about Puerto Rico,” Monzón told me, “you’d say, ‘We have the largest radio telescope in the world,’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, sure, Arecibo.’ ”

That December morning at the WAPA studios, Monzón told the production team that she had to go on the air right away, and minutes later she was standing in front of a weather map, her voice cracking: “Friends, with my heart in my hands, I have to inform you that the observatory has collapsed.” She bit her lip and shook her head. “We tried to save it however we could. And we knew this was a possibility. . . .” She trailed off, looked down at the phone in her hand, and stammered that the director of the observatory was calling. She answered on air and, for an awkward moment, even wandered off camera. Everything was true, she told her audience when she returned. It was gone.

The construction of a world-class radio telescope in Puerto Rico was, in some ways, an accident of the Cold War. After the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite, in 1957, there was a lot of money in Washington for big ideas that could showcase American power and technology, particularly in space. Enter a Cornell physicist and astronomer named William Gordon, a veteran of the Second World War in his early forties, who wanted to use radio waves to study the upper atmosphere—something that required a giant transmitter and a massive dish. Nothing on this scale had ever been done. Radio astronomy was still in its early days; Cornell was among the first American universities where it was studied. The Advanced Research Projects Agency, created by President Eisenhower, funded the project, hoping that it would detect any intercontinental ballistic missiles cutting a path across the upper atmosphere.

In order to be useful for planetary study, the telescope had to be situated in the tropics, where the planets pass overhead in their orbits. Cuba, in the midst of revolution, was not an option. Hawaii and the Philippines were too far away. Puerto Rico, which had formalized its colonial relationship with the U.S. less than a decade earlier, emerged as a possibility, facilitated by a Ph.D. candidate from there who was studying at Cornell. The rest, as they say, is history. Gordon, who died in 2010, described the rather arbitrary nature of the site-selection process in a 1978 interview: “Our civil-engineer man looked at the aerial photographs of Puerto Rico and said, ‘Here are a dozen possibilities of holes in the ground in roughly the dimensions you need.’ And we looked at some and said, ‘Well, that’s too close to a town or a city or something.’ Very, very quickly he reduced it to three, and he and I went down and looked at them and picked one.”

The one that they picked was a half-hour drive into the hills from Arecibo, a town of about seventy thousand, with a harbor and a lively central plaza. In the sixties, it was a hub of rum production, home to one of the island’s largest cathedrals and three movie theatres. Every year during carnival, people came to Arecibo from all over the island to dance to steel-drum bands. There was a fifty-room hotel on the plaza, where visiting scientists and engineers sometimes stayed, and where the New York Times and the Daily News were delivered every Sunday. Gordon and his team moved to Arecibo in 1960, setting up shop in a small office behind the cathedral. Several other mainland scientists and their families, along with a few Cuban engineers, settled in Radioville, a seaside development a couple of miles west of the center of town—named for a radio station, not for the observatory, which, in any case, was still just an idea.

Size was always a core-value proposition of the observatory at Arecibo. At the time, the largest radio telescope, near Manchester, England, had a diameter of two hundred and fifty feet; Arecibo’s telescope would be a thousand feet wide, dwarfing every other such instrument in use. The limestone hills of northern Puerto Rico were dotted with natural sinkholes, which made the excavation and construction simpler, though there was nothing simple about building a spherical dish with the area of approximately eighteen football fields. The curve of the dish had to be precise in order for the radio waves to be gathered within a movable instrument platform. According to the astronomer Don Campbell, who arrived at Arecibo in 1965 and is now working on a history of the facility, the construction of the observatory—which was built at a cost of around nine million dollars, the equivalent of more than seventy million today—was a tremendous achievement.

The original walkway to the suspended platform had wooden slats. There was no phone communication from the observatory to the city, though there was a radio link to a phone that rang on the fourth floor of the Space Sciences Building at Cornell. Back then, the trip from San Juan to the observatory might take two or three hours, longer during the harvest season, when trucks piled high with sugarcane clogged the narrow roads. Joanna Rankin, a radio astronomer at the University of Vermont, who made her first observation at Arecibo in 1969, told me that the terrain at the site was so steep and unforgiving she found it miraculous that the place had even been built. “Going up there at night was like being on an island in the sky,” she said. “So vast and so delicate.” The facility attracted an adventurous sort of personality in those early days, Campbell said. Still, it was good living: the scientists worked hard all week and went to the beach every Sunday. The Arecibo Country Club, which had no golf course and whose swimming pool was often drained of water, nonetheless hosted great parties, to which the scientists were often invited. And, of course, the chance to work on a telescope of that magnitude was unique.

Planetary and atmospheric researchers used Arecibo to . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, Arecibo was once a part of America’s greatness.

Later in the column:

The problems began for Arecibo in the mid-aughts, when the National Science Foundation, which owned the site and supported it with about twelve million dollars a year, convened a panel of astronomers to evaluate the foundation’s holdings. With the N.S.F. facing flat budget allocations, and with several large investments in new telescopes under way, the panel recommended a multimillion-dollar cut to the Arecibo astronomy budget, to be implemented over several years. The report was stark and final: if partners couldn’t be found to help cover the cost of maintaining the site by 2011, Arecibo should be closed.

And there’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

31 March 2021 at 6:44 pm

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