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Arecibo in Petition and Poetry

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.

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’.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Mike Serfas November 23, 2020, 8:26

    It is kind to respect the work of many decades, but we should not forget that the Earth is the work of billions of years. Restoring the natural environment and recycling the metal is a more meaningful way to preserve our history that matters most. The telescope is not a mysterious archaeological find to be studied, but a simple design – one which has since been surpassed not only in size but in sophistication. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7SRV3rnULO0 ) If we wish to make a meaningful memorial to the sort of people who built Arecibo, we must do it by finding a way to surpass even FAST, whether in mere size or by approaching the problem with more advanced technology.

  • Alex Tolley November 23, 2020, 12:54

    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’.

    What an elegiac thought. I agree that if the telescope is not to be repaired, this is a good way to leave it, slowly falling into disrepair as a monument to history. Perhaps it might even become a World heritage site. This would at least support the tourist trade. However, unlike stone structures, the metal structure is likely to rapidly weaken and collapse in humid conditions. Has anyone looked at how long it will last before it completely collapses and rusts? Tourists would have to be kept away from the structure for safety. It would be a travesty if it cost as much to maintain as a monument as it would as a functioning radio telescope.

  • Keith Cooper November 23, 2020, 13:22

    The engineering report from Thornton Tomasetti concludes that “the structure will collapse in the near-future if left untouched.” Very soon it would be a ruin, not a monument, and dangerous too for anyone nearby.

    Arecibo has suffered from funding difficulties for years, so cynics might say that decommissioning it now gives the funding bodies an easy way out. And the loss of the planetary radar is huge. But I have to admit, given the dismal prognosis by the engineers, I’m perplexed when scientists like Abel Mendez casually say on Twitter that the risk to life is worth a repair attempt – presumably it won’t be those scientists saying this that will be risking their life repairing it. The petition shouldn’t be to save Arecibo – it should be to raze it to the ground and then build a better one.

  • Thomas Mazanec November 23, 2020, 13:25

    It is not so much the cost issue which concerns me, it is the safety. My understanding is that it is more dangerous to repair the damaged dish than to make a new one, so perhaps we should just rely on China’s new telescope.

  • charlie November 23, 2020, 15:14

    “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? ”
    No – how many of those 6,000 would be willing to make sustained payments to keep Arecibo up? Answer that and you’ll know …

  • wdk November 23, 2020, 17:23

    It is truly sad to see the era of Arecibo end. It has a long list of contributions and many have served their watches there with accomplishment and reason for pride. How to move on? It is pointed out that the disintegration of so much metal and eventual undergrowth growing over will create severe problems. And it should also be noted that the exploration of space in radio microwave bands is not about to end. It is my suspicion that beside other well suited Earth based sites
    for large antennas ( craters, etc.) that the exploration will continue
    in space or on orbit. This is not due to a lack of window through the atmosphere, but the difficulty of building large, accurate truss structures in a gravity field. Plus the ability to do tracking on a slowly rotating planet and an arbitrary latitude. Football field sized structures
    can be deployed in space. We do so for solar arrays. We could just as well do so for radio sources. They might even produce less long term hazard, last longer and be open to more upgrades. It won’t be next week, but ultimately.

    • wdk November 25, 2020, 13:18

      Reviewing some of the other comments on this, I should add that I would rather have heard that Arecibo was still running well and had an open horizon for continued work. I simply took the notion that it was closing as a given. And that one remedy in the future could be building larger, more sensitive antennas in space. Would I like things to be better in Puerto Rico? Yes. And sometimes I have an opportunity to discuss these matters with my friends, co-workers and neighbors who hail from there. And if Arecibo can be restored, I am not opposed. Especially if it is with their blessing. But there is also that flip side to this issue. Consider the example of Mauna Kea. Not all Hawaiians are necessarily in favor of continued development at that site.

  • Michael Fidler November 23, 2020, 18:43

    This should become a project for Puerto Rico and a contest to redesign the suspended receiver with light weight materials. The original project was started in the heat of the cold war after Sputnik by ARPA to research the way to tell real warheads from decoys for an ABM system. SIxty years later there has been vast improvements in lightweight materials and technology. The designs for space elevators have come up with extremely strong cables and any large permanent space space colonies will be using cables to stabilize the structure. The best way is to turn the project into a public funded development of advanced technology that could involve organizations like Space X in a contest to redesign the observatory. Public interest is high and using it to develop cables that could be used in space, Mars and lunar colonies might give it the some large incentives for public, private and goverment funding.

    • Michael Fidler November 23, 2020, 22:40

      Just because it is on a island that has little merit in USA policy or history we should be looking as if this giant telescope was in your state and back yard. I see a definite bias because it is outside of the continental USA and unlike Hawaii has the backing of the Puerto Rican people. You have to remember many fire fighters have died fighting wild fires that would of destroyed observatories. We need to push for both international help and money besides public, private and government funding. This is the largest and most important structure in the world for planetary defense!!!

    • Michael Fidler November 23, 2020, 22:48

      The other problem, we have an administration that is going to be not to keen on spending large sums of money on a new giant radar telescope on earth or in space. We have a good scope it just needs some TLC and some smart people to redesign and improve what we have…

    • EricSECT November 24, 2020, 6:27

      Best suggestion yet, Michael F.

      Good example of thinking outside the box.

      I’d be a real shame that for want of replacement suspension cables, the structure is allowed to just rot away. Act fast, the window is narrow.

  • Erik Landahl November 24, 2020, 3:12

    People love space exploration. Still, even after all these years, it is as true as ever. When SpaceX launches a manned rocket or a heavy lifter, millions of eager online viewers demonstrate that the public has never stopped loving it. From Vostok to Apollo, from Space Shuttle to SpaceX. Pioneer, Voyager, Pathfinder, Curiosity. The Arecibo message to M13. Whirling pulsars, SETI@home and Einstein@Home. The public is always there in strong support of space exploration, and seems to be eager for so much more. It is one of the few things, truly, that unites our entire planet.

    As a species, we yearn to leave our cradle. We want to grow up. We want to become adults. We want to make our way into the universe. We want to learn from the universe. To experience its innumerable wonders (and horrors) from a closer point of view. We are arrogant enough and hopeful enough to desire to add to the universe the broad perspective of our species, and the insights of individual humans.

    But America’s political leaders long ago lost the desire to think big, spend big and act big regarding space exploration. They have held us back in our development as a spacefaring species. They have held us back from making the progress we could have and needed to make. Whether causing damage on a grand, historical sweeping scope by scuttling the Saturn V fleet and ending manned lunar exploration, or causing damage on a more practical, societal and scientific scope by killing the Space Shuttle program with absolutely nothing to replace it, politicians consistently make choices which help ensure our species has an ever-longer and ever more dangerous stay in the cradle.

    Arecibo is a giant in our planet’s space exploration pantheon of heroes. It has made important contributions right up to present time. It will be left to decay and become a memory. No plans for replacement exist. Is the money available for a replacement should the politicians decide to turn on the spigot? An F-35 Joint Strike Fighter costs $280 million- per airplane. Cut two (2) F-35 fighters from the acquisition budget and there’s $560 million. Give me a day and I’ll find 3 dozen other plausible government funding sources with which to build a new Arecibo.

    Should a replacement be built? Even the National Science Foundation itself said that Arecibo has powerful, unique capabilities that make it especially valuable. Yet Arecibo will die with no successor. The NSF reassured us all that astrophysicists are a resilient bunch and will adapt to the loss. What an insult to the legacy of Arecibo.

  • AlexTru November 24, 2020, 4:09

    Very sad to loose this nice antenna, decommission it is bad news , but expected.
    It was clear that there will be moment when this complicated construction will became unsafe and dangerous, so there is no case to repair it.
    If we still want to have similar antenna, we have to totally dismount old construction and redesign and build new one.
    But no repair!

  • RAS November 24, 2020, 4:59

    Having read the comments above I am glad that none of these posters had anything to do with the upkeep of the venerable Jodrell Bank over here in the U.K. which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, as well continuing to do much valuable work in both science and public outreach.


    • Alex Tolley November 24, 2020, 14:13

      Jodrell Bank was not damaged and non-functional but was facing a budget cut. Once restored, it has continued to function. There is AFAIK, no danger of the telescope collapsing. That it has become a World Heritage site and a tourist attraction outside Manchester is a side benefit and useful source of some extra funding, albeit I would guess, fairly small. At least it ensures that it cannot be left to fall into ruin as a national and world treasure.

      Arecibo is a different issue. As Mike Serfas notes below, Puerto Rico has other issues to deal with, not least still recovering from Hurricane Maria which was woefully ignored by the US government. If the Federal government replaces the facility with a new one, that might well be a nice injection of funding for the local economy. However, as funding is likely to be from the NSF budget, the cost-benefit for science needs to be weighed up and compared to other projects that require NSF funding.

  • James Essig November 24, 2020, 12:16

    A huge radio disk in a lunar crater would be really cool. I can imagine that such a disk could look for currently veiled artifacts in the CMBR perhaps finding hints of some new physics that manifested in the early moments of the universe.

    Regardless, loosing Arecibo is like loosing an old friend.

  • Mike Serfas November 24, 2020, 13:16

    We’ve strayed too far into politics, but keep in perspective that it took 18 months to restore electricity to Puerto Rico’s inhabitants after Hurricane Maria. 34,000 people were confirmed infected with Zika virus, which causes microcephaly in affected fetuses, and to this day no one has produced a vaccine. The country struggled to declare bankruptcy and form a deal to “haircut” $35 billion in debt. To restore and maintain a massive, obsolete telescope, deemed a death-trap by its engineers, in a remote area with few of the opportunities for tourism that exist in central Britain … well, it seems like it might be a low priority.

    • Michael Fidler November 24, 2020, 20:56

      “Obsolete telescope” so why has CHINA produced the exact same copy???
      As to Puerto Rico problems, where I live in the Philippines many similar issues occur but this is one of the countries that has a highest growing economies in SE Asia. The USA looks at Puerta Rico as its Indian Reservation in the Caribbean and they very little time for this third world Spanish, Catholic island. This is 90% of the rest of the world, to bad this group has such underlying issues and smallness, pitifully small… The astronomy community of non professional astronomers have restored many large telescope in the USA to perfection. How many of you even own a telescope???

    • Michael Fidler November 24, 2020, 23:02

      This is not a country it is a unincorporated territory of the United States!!!
      Puerto Ricans have been citizens of the United States since 1917!!!!
      In 1898, following the Spanish–American War, the United States acquired Puerto Rico, which remains an unincorporated territorial possession, making it the world’s oldest colony.
      Puerto Rico held its statehood referendum during the November 3 general elections, and voted to be admitted as the 51st US state. The ballot asked one question: Should Puerto Rico be admitted immediately into the Union as a State? The results showed that 52 percent of Puerto Rico voters answered yes.
      As with many ignorant USA citizens, they do not even know that the Philippines was part of the United States and was attacked by the Japanese 7 hours after Pearl Harbor!

      • Paul Gilster November 25, 2020, 6:52

        Michael, I’m interested in the pre-WWII era in the Philippines (mostly the 1930s), when I believe the islands were considered a commonwealth. But you know a lot more about this than I do, given that you live there. Was the status of the Philippines in 1935 — this was the beginning of the Quezon government — approximately the same as Puerto Rico’s today? Feel free to take this into email, as I’m heading off topic here, but I hope to mine your expertise. The Japanese occupation changed everything, but I’m interested in the Quezon period just before that, and how his government dealt with the onset of war (still have memories of reading, as a boy, Carlos Romulo’s book on the fall of the islands in 1942). Thanks.

      • Mike Serfas November 25, 2020, 12:46

        “Country” is a vague term, and a common one – Puerto Rico frequently is indexed in lists such as https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_population_(United_Nations) – I used that word because if Puerto Rico were a state, it would have had no obstacle in declaring bankruptcy, and if it were truly a territory, I think it could have had no independent debt to begin with.
        Some readings of Mark Twain gave me as much insight into the history of the Philippines as I possess…

        • Michael Fidler November 25, 2020, 21:31

          Sorry, I get a little carried away when discussing the shenanigan that went on in both the past and present with this subject.

  • Gary Wilson November 24, 2020, 13:57

    Can we possibly save or at least help to save Arecibo with crowd funding? It seems worth a try. Could it eventually be a tourist attraction? I know the Mount Palomar Observatory in southern California got lots of visitors before covid (we visited several times while living down there in the nineties). I just hate to think of losing such a valuable resource.

  • Michael November 24, 2020, 14:53

    Perhaps break it up and sell the aluminium panels for mirrors so we may pause and reflect on what it has achieved, I would buy one or use the aluminium in the construction of other spacecraft directly, quite fitting I would think. And use the money to build a bigger and better one !

  • wdk November 25, 2020, 20:35

    Just by coincidence was reading some exoplanet reports in U of Arizona LPI Exoplanet collection, one by Alex Wolsczan and Marc Kuchner recalling the discovery of PSR B1257+12 planetary system, using the Arecibo radio telescope ( p. 181):

    “The story of the discovery of the first exoplanets began in early 1990, when a routine inspection fo the 1000-ft Arecibo radio telescope revealed structural defects, which had developed over time ias the result of material fatigue. With the memories of the recent dramatic collapse of the 300-ft Green Bank telescope still very much alive in the minds of the community, the only logical decision was to shut down the routine Arecibo operations to repair the damages, The process was estimated to last several weeks, and normal observations were obviously out of the question during that period.

    “The nature of the repairs had ruled out using the telescope in its normal tracking mode, bug once a day, it could be “parked” at ia desired azimuth and zenith angle and utilized as as transit instrument, which is a very efficient way to conduct large surveys under any circumstances.

    “… This fortunate circumstance had triggered a sequence of events starting with the discovery of a new millisecond pulsar, PSR B1257 +12 and culminating in a surprising realization that this old neutron star is orbited by a system of three terrestrial-mass planets…”

    I guess there is something in that story for everybody.

  • Michael Fidler November 28, 2020, 6:38

    Petition for emergency action to evaluate and stabilize the Arecibo radio telescope.
    Created by T.G. on November 21, 2020
    Sign This Petition
    Needs 68,354 signatures by December 21, 2020 to get a response from the White House

    31,646 SIGNED100,000 GOAL
    On November 19, the National Science Foundation announced the decommissioning and controlled demolition of the Arecibo Observatory 305-meter radio telescope, due to safety concerns after the rupture of two cables. The telescope houses the world’s most powerful planetary radar system, responsible for critical follow-up observations of asteroids.

    The telescope structure includes 20 tons of lead counterweights. Its demolition or unplanned collapse presents the potential of an environmental emergency as it lies on top of an aquifer and would affect the nearby population.

    We urge emergency action to have the Army Corps of Engineers or another agency evaluate the telescope structure and search for a safe way to stabilize it, to provide time for other actions to be considered and carried out.


    • Michael Fidler November 29, 2020, 6:47
      • Michael Fidler November 30, 2020, 9:42

        Losing Arecibo’s giant dish leaves humans more vulnerable to space rocks, scientists say.
        By Meghan Bartels

        Arecibo was a cornerstone in the campaign to protect Earth from asteroids.

        gnorance may feel like bliss, but preparedness offers better odds of surviving what is to come. And when it comes to planetary defense, ignorance just became a bit more inevitable.

        Planetary defense is the art of identifying and mitigating threats to Earth from asteroid impacts. And among its tools is planetary radar, an unusual capability that can give scientists a much better look at a nearby object. Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico was one of only a couple such systems on the planet, and that instrument’s long tenure is over now after two failed cables made the telescope so unstable that there was no way to even evaluate its status without risking workers’ lives, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), which owns the site. Instead, it will be decommissioned.

        And when it comes to planetary defense, there’s nothing like it.

        “There’s been statements in the media that, ‘Oh we have other systems that can kind of replace what Arecibo is doing,’ and I don’t think that’s true,” Anne Virkki, who leads the planetary radar team at Arecibo Observatory, told Space.com. “It’s not obsolete and it’s not easily replaceable by other existing facilities and instruments.”

        And radar can more quickly offer other details about a space rock that can inform planetary defense, including such vital information as whether an asteroid is actually a single object or a pair of objects in disguise, as 15% of near-Earth asteroids turn out to be, Betts said. “If you needed to deflect it, obviously, it’s crucial to know whether there’s one or two objects.”

        Same with the composition of the space rock. “Some are solid metal, some are fluff balls or rubble piles, so they vary considerably in density,” Betts said. “If you actually have to deflect an asteroid, if it actually is targeting Earth, the techniques may respond differently depending on whether you’re dealing with a very dense asteroid or a very fluffy asteroid.”

        So radar is a valuable skill for a planet to have.

        Arecibo wasn’t the only radar facility, but it’s a rare capacity given how expensive the technology involved is. With its demise, the only remaining radar transmitter is at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Center in California, run by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But this facility has a host of additional responsibilities — it’s part of the Deep Space Network that manages communication with spacecraft throughout the solar system and it has military responsibilities as well.

        “They are not going to be as flexible with scheduling these recently discovered target observations as Arecibo has been,” Virkki said. “If you don’t get to observe those targets when they are in the window, then you might lose the opportunity very quickly, and then you have these asteroids that have higher uncertainties in their orbits.” And that uncertainty could be the difference between worrying a space rock will hit Earth and being confident it won’t.

        Goldstone’s radar system is also about 20 times less sensitive than Arecibo’s was, and the two systems could see different subsets of space, she said. “So it’s not exactly going to be replacing Arecibo.”

        Virkki said there are plans in the works to add radar capability at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, but here again, it won’t be able to take over Arecibo’s work. Green Bank will use a slightly different flavor of radar than Arecibo did and will be more vulnerable to weather, she said.

        And it will have a narrow beam, making it a bit more persnickety in tracking down asteroids. “If you have a very narrow beam, you have to have a very good idea of where you are pointing your radar,” Virkki said. “You can’t go, like, looking around with that narrow beam.” Arecibo was more forgiving when the asteroids’ orbits weren’t as certain.

        Those factors combine to make Arecibo’s loss a major blow to the planetary defense capability, according to Ed Lu, a former NASA astronaut and executive director of the B612 Asteroid Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on asteroid science and deflection studies. “This is a big loss to the community,” he said. “It’s not like we won’t have this capability, but it’s certainly going to be reduced.”

        And then, of course, there’s the risk that something else will go wrong. “Radars are, of course, complicated and things break,” Betts said. “You now don’t have any redundancy in your system, it’s a single-point failure with the Goldstone radar. So if it breaks at the wrong time, you don’t get what you need.”

        The weakness is coming at a tricky time for planetary defense experts, Lu said. New asteroids are being identified ever more quickly — a few thousand a year, these days — and that trend will only accelerate when the Vera Rubin Observatory begins work within the next year, he said.


        How many trillions of dollars would a double asteroid impact cost if in the earths oceans?

  • Jeff Wright November 29, 2020, 3:34

    Have lighter cables turn this into the god of all infrasound/HAM radio installations with lighter cables.

    Build a replacement in Meteor Crater.

  • Michael Fidler December 1, 2020, 9:32

    The Arecibo Observatory platform has collapsed.


    • Mike Serfas December 1, 2020, 10:41

      None of the news stories I saw explain anything beyond the Twitter posting – I presume we would have heard if someone was injured, but was the collapse accidental? Was it possible to save the instruments on site beforehand? Were nearby buildings damaged?

      I hope the people who made the petitions are able to keep their momentum now and keep thinking of new ideas. Little things might help, like Michael’s idea above of selling aluminum souvenirs. Most importantly, the lead mentioned in the petition has to be dealt with – the slightest contamination of local groundwater could fuel permanent opposition to astronomy projects! Longer term, provided the site is tidied up, it is still a nice dish-shaped depression near the equator in a region with low radio interference. FAST reportedly would have trouble implementing planetary radar because of the small size and weight of its cabin, and there is a recognized need for that. And Puerto Rico would surely benefit from a project to build a new design of world-class telescope that can compete more effectively for science funding over the next six decades.

  • Kevin Parkin December 1, 2020, 17:28

    Arecibo construction cost $91.75M in 2013 dollars (adjusted on production worker compensation basis). This works out to an areal cost of $1,250/m².

    In comparison, an average commercial steel frame building costs 75-108 $/m² in materials and 54-86 $/m² in labor.

    Therefore, a new and more rigid spherical reflector that operates up to higher frequency might want to be based on steel frame construction and economize on actuators ($$$) for the active surface. It might also want to be at higher altitude (for lower precipitable water vapor).

    • Paul Gilster December 1, 2020, 21:28

      Excellent point. Good to see you here, Kevin!

    • Michael Fidler December 2, 2020, 8:44

      Who was the original builders, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers?

  • Mike Serfas December 2, 2020, 8:33

    The telescope’s director of operations says a replacement could cost “up to $350 million”. https://phys.org/news/2020-12-huge-puerto-rico-radio-telescope.html That is a respectable chunk of cash, but to put it in perspective, JWST has already crossed the $10 billion mark, and the airlines were voted $50 billion to help them continue bringing interesting new organisms to the U.S.

    It’s not my field, but my feeling is that you could be swinging for the fences. Not a “replacement”, not a mere rival for FAST, but a brand new bid for preeminence. What if you built not merely “a” planetary radar to “fill the gap”, but a versatile platform ready to tinker with advances in fractal flexible metamaterials for decades forward, capable of changing its shape with extraordinary precision for higher frequencies, maybe even capable (in conjunction with powerful computer simulation facilities) of “anti-laser” power transmission (per https://phys.org/news/2020-11-anti-laser-enable-long-range-wireless-power.html ) to power the circuits of space probes and rovers that were written off as defunct decades ago? I’m sure there are dozens of better ideas I never heard of that are just waiting for a chance to get funded and go. On a shoestring budget, as a poetic ruin, Arecibo looked like a monument to a past greater than the present. What if we made something that stood up for the future?

  • James Franklin December 2, 2020, 10:51

    It is indeed sad to see the demise of the great Arecibo Telescope, a monument to the desire of mankind to explore the heavens and not allow hurdles to hold us back, but all things must die, all things come to an end, and technology and knowledge moves us forward.

    Perhaps now is the time to accept the loss of this great observatory, and then honour it by building a newer and better one.

    The estimated cost of $350 million is chicken feed in relation to the cost of missions to Mars, the JWST and similar endeavours, but we must also bear in mind the economy of planet Earth has taken a hell of a pounding this year and so science funding is going to be pushed to the limits. Any plan to replace Arecibo should be in international affair, like the European Southern Observatory and similar endeavours, spread the costs between a dozen nations and the cost truly does become chicken feed.

    In fact, I would suggest that an Organisation, such as ESO, is the perfect body to take on such a task, along with the interested parties in the United States, and make it better than it was before.

  • Jeff Wright December 3, 2020, 17:09

    Now that the worst is over, maybe a central tower with a feed horn hooped around it that can be raised and lowered by hand?

    Not as good, but you might get something. Safe to fix the dish proper now, right?

  • Ljk December 4, 2020, 12:42

    The dish may be down but the observatory is not gone….


  • ljk March 10, 2021, 13:53

    Art Imaginarium: A Tribute to the Arecibo Radio Telescope

    Mar 2, 2021
    Art Imaginarium: A Tribute to the Arecibo Radio Telescope

    March 2, 2021

    By Beth Johnson

    The Arecibo radio dish structure suffered a catastrophic collapse on December 1, 2020. In a year of so many difficult events, we wanted to honor the nearly 60 years of work done using that 1,000-foot dish.

    Our Art Imaginarium challenge for January was to pay tribute to our fallen friend. The responses ranged from humorous (Seth Shostak included an ice cream reference in his video) to sublime. We are pleased to share their work with you.

    The Art Imaginarium is a Facebook group dedicated to the space where art meets science.

    Why art? Science and art are more closely connected than people might expect, with each offering new perspectives and insights. We’re building a global artistic community where everyone feels safe expressing themselves and exploring the limits of their imaginations. We hope that this will be a space where people respect both art and science.

    What is art? We do not want to constrain creativity. Want to write a song? Draw in pencil? Create digital art? Bake a cake? Use pasta and beans? Go for it. Each month, we provide members with a challenge theme. For February, the theme is Micro/Macro. Details will be forthcoming soon.


  • ljk June 2, 2021, 13:17

    Professor Emeritus Gordon Pettengill, radio astronomy pioneer, dies at 95

    Planetary physicist and former director of the MIT Center for Space Research and the Arecibo Observatory helped repurpose military radar technology for science and space exploration.


    Publication Date: June 1, 2021


    To quote:

    Pettengill returned to MIT just as the MIT Lincoln Laboratory Millstone Hill radar was under development — a government-commissioned pre-prototype missile-tracking system designed to be 1 million times more sensitive than traditional radar — and with it made a series of breakthrough observations in the nascent field of radio astronomy. When Millstone went online in 1957, Pettengill used the new technology to detect and track Sputnik 1, making the first radar observations of an Earth satellite without the aid of a transmitted beacon signal. In 1961, he aimed the system toward Venus, whose faint echoes heralded the use of radar to measure interplanetary distances. The results of these early experiments recalibrated the accuracy of the astronomical unit by three orders of magnitude, which proved instrumental in the successful navigation of NASA’s 1962 Mariner 2 mission to Venus.

    During this time period, he also used Millstone to generate the first two-dimensional radar map of the moon, which was a key advancement in NASA’s planning for the future Apollo landings. Pettengill’s work helped ensure that, according to Harvard University astrophysicist Irwin Shapiro, “the Apollo astronauts would not disappear under a meters-thick layer of dust.”

    In 1963, Pettengill moved to Ithaca, New York, to become associate director, and later director, of the newly-opened Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which was built and operated by Cornell University and which stood for 53 years as the largest single-aperture telescope in the world. Pettengill oversaw the installation of a powerful radar transmitter at the site and used it to correct a long-held misconception about Mercury. For almost a century, scientists had believed that Mercury was locked in a sun-synchronous orbit, spinning just once over the 88 Earth days it takes the tiny planet to orbit the sun. However, Pettengill and colleague Rolf Dyce were able to make radar measurements that revealed the Mercury “day” was, in fact, equivalent to about 59 Earth days, such that it spins three times for every two orbits around the sun. This discovery catalyzed a resurgence in the study of planetary orbital dynamics in the solar system.