I’m tracking an online petition conceived by Jorge Santiago Ortiz that challenges the National Science Foundation: Repair the Arecibo Observatory, do not decommission it. Given Friday’s news of the planned shutdown due to problems with support cables and the dangers of possible repairs, it’s good to see an effort being made to explore the possible. Ortiz points out that the observatory employs more than 120 people, is visited by some 200 scientists every year working on research projects, and draws 100,000 visitors yearly from the general population.
I notice the petition is approaching 6,000 signatures this morning as people react to the Arecibo news. It is possible there is a path toward keeping the observatory alive? Also noted by Centauri Dreams reader Jeff Brandt, himself a resident of Puerto Rico, is an attempt to free the facility from National Science Foundation funding and repair the structure.
Brandt notes that Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s representative in the US Congress, has sent a letter to the House & Senate Appropriations Committee requesting funding to stabilize the structure, as you can see below. We’ll keep an eye on both efforts.
Sent a letter w/ @RepStephMurphy & @RepDarrenSoto to the House & Senate Appropriations Committee requesting the necessary funds to safely stabilize the Arecibo telescope, a valuable scientific asset treasured by all Puerto Ricans & I'm committed to continuing work to preserve it. pic.twitter.com/pBwN3kumlw
— Jenniffer González (@RepJenniffer) November 20, 2020
It seems apropos in discussing Arecibo to give a nod to the Cornell connection, given the university’s involvement in its inception and subsequent management. The radio telescope was conceived by Cornell professor William E. Gordon, while its early scientific investigations were coordinated by Thomas Gold, who created the Cornell Center for Radiophysics and Space Research. Looking back, the university’s Jonathan Lunine comments on its significance:
“Arecibo has been an incredibly productive facility for nearly 60 years. For the Cornell scientists and engineers who took a daring dream and realized it, for the scientists who made new discoveries with this uniquely powerful radio telescope and planetary radar, and for all the young people who were inspired to become scientists by the sight of this enormous telescope in the middle of the island of Puerto Rico, Arecibo’s end is an inestimable loss.”
Thoughts Upon Hearing the Arecibo Radio Observatory was About to be Closed
Which brings me to Henry Cordova, who has graced these pages before with his SETI Reality Check, and who now looks back at a visit to Arecibo in the observatory’s early days in an essay that was written, I hasten to add, before the recent news of the site’s decommissioning. Trained as an astronomer and mathematician, Henry’s interest in the ways in which we observe the stars continues unabated. Arecibo clearly called out the poetry in him, as it did in me.
by Henry Cordova
I visited Arecibo Observatory in 1971, I was in Puerto Rico on business, and I took a Sunday off to visit the place. It’s a two hour drive from San Juan, and nestled in some pretty spectacular jungle-covered Karst topography: a very beautiful drive into an isolated and haunted countryside.
When I arrived the place was deserted. There was a small building, similar to a motel, where I supposed visiting researchers were quartered; but nobody was home. The permanent staff probably had houses in town (Arecibo proper is about a half-hour drive further north, on the coast). Next door, the control room was visible; through the locked glass doors I could see electronic equipment, powered up, but no one was there. Only my car was in the parking area. At the edge of the lot was a little observation platform where you could walk right up to the edge of the dish itself. It spread before me, filling a vast natural depression. The feeling was very much like standing at the edge of Meteor Crater in Arizona, except I could see suspended above me, on huge white towers, the receivers placed at the focus of the parabola.
The silence, the isolation, the grandeur of it all really affected me. The sheer audacity of the structure, the combination of natural beauty and technological brilliance was almost overpowering. I imagine it would be very similar to be standing alone at Stonehenge on a sunny windy day, accompanied only by ghosts.
Observatories are holy places. They are as impressive and beautiful as a medieval cathedral and by necessity are usually located in lonely and desolate landscapes. Like cathedrals, they are temples to the ineffable, to the incredibly remote, and to our faith in being able to connect with it–places of worship, in a way, sacred places. I know it’s sentimental and impractical of me, but if this site is to be abandoned, let it not be replaced with a farm or village or reservoir or some other practical symbol of the economy. Let it naturally decay into ruins, as a monument to our boldness, and to our stupidity. Centuries from now, men will stand in that place and say ‘we once explored the stars from here’.