Tag Archives: Arecibo Observatory

Status of Arecibo radio observatory

It appears that, while Puerto Rico itself suffered devastating damage from Hurricane Maria, the Arecibo Observatory came through relatively unscathed.

The surface of the dish was largely unscathed, and the observatory’s most vulnerable component, the instrument platform suspended high above the dish by cables strung from three towers, each more than 80 meters tall, was still in place and seemed undamaged, says Schmelz. She is based at the Columbia, Maryland, headquarters of one of Arecibo’s operators, the Universities Space Research Association, and spoke with staff in Puerto Rico who first used a ham radio and then a single working satellite phone. But the roofs on some observatory buildings were blown off, the sinkhole under the dish was flooded, and other equipment was damaged by rain and fallen trees. Most significantly, a large portion of a 29-meter-long antenna—the 430-megahertz line feed used for studying the upper atmosphere—appears to have broken off and fallen from the platform into the dish. Mathews estimates a bill of several million dollars to replace the line feed alone.

Because of the significant infrastructure damage across the island, there will be significant delays in getting any of this fixed. Since the telescope is already being considered for shut down due to budget issues, these delays could lead to that shut down.


Post-hurricane update from Arecibo radio telescope

USRA, the university consortium that operates the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, has released an update on the observatory’s condition following Hurricane Maria.

Currently, we have no contact with the Observatory. One observatory staff member located in Arecibo Town contacted via short-wave radio reports that trees are down, power is out, houses damaged and roads impassable. We have no reason to believe that staff sheltered at Arecibo Observatory are in immediate danger since they have generators, well water and plenty of food. This is a rapidly changing situation, and we are trying to do the best we can to contact USRA employees and find out their status.

Essentially, they don’t know much at this point.


National Science Foundation considers shuttering Arecibo

Faced with tight budgets, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is considering several options for the future operation of the Arecibo Observatory, the world’s largest single radio telescope dish, including its complete removal.

[T]he NSF could mothball the site, shutting it down in such a way that it could restart (sometime in the future). Or it could dismantle the telescope altogether and restore the area to its natural state, as required by law if the agency fully divests itself of the observatory and closes it. Previous studies have said such a process could cost around $100 million—more than a decade’s worth of its current funding for telescope operations. Jim Ulvestad, director of the NSF Division of Astronomical Sciences, says the agency is still investigating, not concluding. “No alternative has been selected at this juncture,” he says. And much consideration will go into the final financial decision, whatever it may be. Some outside the agency see writing on the wall. “NSF is dead serious about offloading Arecibo funding to someone else—anyone else,” says Ellen Howell, a former staff scientist at Arecibo and now a faculty member at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) in Tucson, Arizona.

The article spends a lot of time talking about how wonderful Arecibo is, but never tells us how many astronomers actually demand to use it. Is it oversubscribed, like Hubble, where five times the number of astronomers request time than can be handled, or does it often sit unused because not enough astronomers require its use? NSF and the government do not have unlimited funds, and need to focus their spending where the demand is. If Arecibo is not in demand, then they are wise to consider closing it, or handing it off to someone who wants it.