As long as humans have existed, we have observed the stars. In the 20th century, we were curious about the star signals that we couldn’t see. But they were difficult to detect. Radio waves travel across the galaxy and are confused by all the noise of modern life: garage door openers, satellite TV, and radio stations. But what if you could build the largest dish in the world to pick up those weak signals, in a quiet, secluded place somewhere far south so the dish would sweep as much sky as possible when the Earth spun around? It was the dream that built Puerto Rico Arecibo Observatory, which collapsed earlier this week. Until recently, it was the largest radio telescope in the world, and its sensitivity was unmatched.
For the 57 years since its construction, the Remote Observatory has been one of the world’s leading centers for radio astronomy. It far exceeded its original goals and the wider and deeper possibilities that two upgrades allowed, one in 1972–74 and the other in 1994–98. Arecibo’s unique and powerful radar mapped planets, helped guide spacecraft to the edges of the solar system, and identified positions of asteroids that could one day impact Earth. He probed the upper atmosphere of our planet, searched for extraterrestrial intelligence, and allowed us to understand much more about pulsars, failed black holes that send out rhythmic radio signals like headlights.
In August 2020, one of the 18 cables that suspended 900 tonnes of instruments above the huge reflector antenna broke. The National Science Foundation has ordered a new cable. But when a second erupted on November 6, the agency consulted engineers and decided on a “controlled demolition” of the observatory.
Some questioned whether more should have been done immediately to stabilize the telescope, but that possibility was ruled out when hundreds of tons of instruments crashed into the observatory’s antenna on December 1 (The observatory has, However, maintained her record of not losing a single life in an accident – despite maintenance personnel and others working there 500 feet in the air almost daily for decades.)
The damage is considerable. Judging from the photographs alone, it might seem silly to think of saving the observatory at this point – but that wouldn’t be more ridiculous than tearing it down. In recent years, the University of Central Florida has been NSF’s primary contractor to manage the observatory. They reinvigorated him in many ways, with an entrepreneurial spirit that is needed more than ever. The NSF has promised Puerto Rico to return the site to its original state if it ever shuts down the telescope. But what could be more absurd than trying to erase what has been built with so much genius and dedication? Let us not abandon this spectacular facility and its community of workers, students and scientists.
Instead, let’s ask if the same daring ingenuity and engineering brilliance that built the telescope can create a new incarnation for it in one form or another. Following the second cable break, the NSF decided to “decommission” the telescope, and preliminary cost estimates run into the millions. What if the agency sponsored a worldwide competition to save the mind if not the body of the telescope with the same level of expense? This could mean renovating the instrument in an unexpected way, or creating and staffing an on-site scientific research and educational establishment. Perhaps the observatory’s award-winning Angel Ramos Visitor Center could expose students and visitors to research that can continue with the remaining instruments.
In the moments following the collapse, the NSF sent a hope Tweeter: “As we move forward, we will look for ways to help the scientific community and maintain our strong relationship with the Puerto Rican people.” Even if contemporary engineering cannot rise to the challenge – or if the NSF recklessly abandons the United States’ leading role in astronomy, as some fear – the observatory’s legacy is indestructible. It was built by a daring dream, which is still vital today.
Dozens of scientists and others are already discussing how to preserve and expand Arecibo’s legacy, to ensure that students around the world feel the pull of the sky and their own dreams of seeking it, and that colleagues discuss and confuse the archives of the unanalyzed. observations. Every Puerto Rican schoolboy should still be exposed to the thrill of science. NSF must ensure that the staff who have dedicated their lives to this magnificent instrument have a role in its future, whatever form it may take. The Arecibo Observatory is, after all, much more than a telescope.
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