The fall of the Arecibo Observatory: A Tribute
While watching Lion King there comes a very memorable moment when Pumbaa wonders what those sparkly dots are, up there in the night sky. Timon says they are fireflies which got stuck on the big bluish-black thing. For us humans, these ‘fireflies’ or stars have played a decisive role in how we lead our lives. The mysticism of the thought that life might exist somewhere in that quagmire of burning gas and brimstone lead Frank Drake with the help of Carl Sagan and many other scholars to send an interstellar message to any intelligent life which might exist. This message was sent through the Arecibo radio telescope, in Puerto Rico
The contribution of this telescope is not limited to this broadcast of human ingenuity. For over 57 years, starting in 1963, it has shaped the careers of several scientists and played astonishing roles in the establishment of scientific facts. With its diameter of 305m, it was the single most massive spherical reflector dish till 2016.
On 10th August 2020, an auxiliary cable slipped out of its socket. This would herald further structural malfunctions, culminating in the collapse of the receiving platform on the 1st of December 2020.
Arecibo: A Dream Come True
First conceptualized by Prof. William E. Gordon, the aim behind the construction of the Arecibo Observatory was to study the Ionosphere1. In that tune, it was born as the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center.
The telescope itself was massive, 1000 feet in diameter, 167 feet in depth and covering an area close to 20 acres. The surface of the telescope was gilded with 40,000 perforated aluminum panels. This massive structure was supported by a network of steel cables which was strung around the underlying natural karst sinkhole. In nature, it was a spherical and not parabolic reflector dish.
Above the dish itself was a 900-ton instrumentation platform, supported on 18 cables from 3 towers. This instrumentation platform could be adjusted with millimeter precision using giant jacks attached to cables running from the corners of the platform. A total of 26 motors controlled this platform, along with the azimuth, the Gregorian Dome, and the carriage house. The Arecibo system could operate at frequencies ranging from 50 megahertz (6m wavelength) up to 10000 megahertz (3 cm wavelength).
The fact about observing the universe is to gather enough energy to make sense of it. The signals meandering through the vast maze may very well have started a journey over hundred million years ago. Thus, they are extremely weak. The giant size of the reflector made the telescope extremely efficient in detecting the faintest of signals within just a few minutes of observation time.
A Pioneer of Science
The Arecibo Observatory has some seminal discoveries in science to its name. It was used in the observation of a Binary Pulsar J1906+0746, a test of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity in 2019 2. It was a key collaborator in the NASA Planetary Defense Office, with a record of 126 Near Earth Objects, of which 78 were recently discovered.
To it can be attributed the observation of the first repeating Fast Radio Bursts (FBR) 3. In controversies to, it was a heavy weight when it discovered two extremely strange pulsars which underwent a ‘cosmic vanishing act’, by which they are sometimes there and sometimes , often very long time periods, they are not 4. This challenged the notion that pulsars are orderly ticking clocks present in the universe. It challenged the traditional model for the emission from the vicinity of supermassive black holes when the quasar 3C273 revealed a temperature brightness greater than 1013K 5.
These firsts go on and on, even in the correction of the duration of Mercury’s rotation time period. It has played seminal role in the search of Extraterrestrial life, hunted for water on moon and discovered the first ever exoplanet 6. Hollywood will also not forget Arecibo, as the image of Pierce Brosnan climbing about it Golden Eye will be entrenched in the mind of many viewers 6,7.
Needless to say, this small list of achievements makes it evident of what we lost in the early morning of the 1st of December, 2020. But how can man kill a giant? Well, it is not be forgotten that David did kill Goliath.
Death of a Star – The Blame Game
It might be quite easy for us to through the blame in Mother Nature’s Basket. Indeed, Arecibo has fared through the gusty winds of Hurricane Isais as well as that of Hurricane Maria, which landed as a Category 4 hurricane. It is also well reported that Puerto Rico is a victim to volcanic activity and so was the Arecibo Observatory. However, doing this would be ruinous and unfair not only to this felled giant but the other telescopes too which have contributed so much to the scientific society 8,9.
In 2006, the NSF implemented a stringent 15% budget cut throughout the Department of Astronomical Sciences and Arecibo took the brunt of the culling. Interest in the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile was gathering more interest than the productivity of Arecibo. Again in 2007, Arecibo endured a budget slash from $10.5 billion to $8 billion. Further cuts were on coming and it looked like end of the road for the Observatory.
However, a lifeline was cast in 2011 when Arecibo came under new management, whereby funds could be gathered from external sources. But the financial issues dogged the facility and was evident in the retirement of Robert Kerr, the facility director in 2015 over funding issues 9.
Even as the Observatory recovered from the battering of Hurricane Maria, University of Central Florida took over the management of Arecibo. But the events of August 2020 were the final nail in the coffin. Even as the NSF announce the official end of the observatory, it collapsed from both the wrath of nature and negligence of its builders.
An Obituary or a Resurrection?
At 305 meters, the Arecibo Observatory’s Radio telescope was a giant not only in magnitude, but also in its impact on science and its contribution in the understanding of Space Science as a whole. It has not only left a void to be filled in the scientific community, but opened up a spectrum of debates, as to the future of the dish and the installation as a whole 10.
Even as the dust settles, NSF (National Science Foundation) has already announced that the facility will not immediately face closure. It will still provide full funding to the telescope for the fiscal year 2021. Operations at the 12-meter dish and lidar for atmospheric observations will continue. However, there was no positive referendum as to the replacement of this telescope. In the same announcement, NSF’s director of the Division of Astronomical Sciences, Ralph Guame, communicated that the construction of such large-scale infrastructures are a multi-year process which involves congressional appropriations 11.
In fact, in the Spending Bill passed by the Congress for the fiscal year 2021, there was no federal funding allocated for rebuilding the observatory. A ray of hope shines, however, as the Congress did demand a report containing “the process for determining whether to establish comparable technology at the site, along with any associated cost estimates.” Since at the same time the astrophysics decadal survey is also in process, it is to be hoped that there might be some inclusion of funds or otherwise for Arecibo 12.
Ever since the collapse of the Observatory, several petitions, online crowd-sourced campaigns, and protest by the scientific community have been launched. Of significance is “Rebuild the Arecibo Observatory” which was previously called “Save the Arecibo Observatory”. The campaign has already garnered the required 100,000 signatures in 30 days, which is the threshold set by The White House to respond within 60 days to a mass petition 13.
The observatory has always been an icon of pride for Puerto Rico. In a world where scientific installations are a bone of contention between the government and the natives, the Arecibo Observatory was a startling lighthouse of peace, harmony, and pride. It was the symbol of the island. In tune with this, Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced signed an executive order “to establish as public policy the reconstruction of the Arecibo Observatory radio telescope so that it resurfaces as a world-class educational center.” In support of this initiative, an amount of $8 million was allocated to the reconstruction efforts. This would suit the need for remedy of the environmental damages and the safe disposal of the affected material. This order was finalized on December 28, 2020 14,15.
In the End
We stand on the platform of the present supported by the pillars of the past, building the pillars of the future. Arecibo was a load-bearing beam for not only Astrophysics but Science in general. A scientific establishment of such a magnitude plays not only its currency in Science, but also stands as a symbol of human progress and ingenuity. Forgetting it is not an option. Preservation is the only way forward, if not resurrection. We can only hope that the scientific community can come together as one and support the reconstruction or at least preservation of a legacy.
- History | The Arecibo Observatory. https://www.naic.edu/ao/history.
- Radio emission from a pulsar’s magnetic pole revealed by general relativity | Science. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/365/6457/1013.abstract.
- Spitler, L. G. et al. A repeating fast radio burst. Nature 531, 202–210 (2016).
- The Mystery of Part Time Pulsars | The Arecibo Observatory. https://www.naic.edu/ao/blog/mystery-part-time-pulsars.
- Kovalev, Y. Y. et al. RADIOASTRON OBSERVATIONS OF THE QUASAR 3C273: A CHALLENGE TO THE BRIGHTNESS TEMPERATURE LIMIT. Astrophysical Journal Letters 820, (2016).
- Legacy Discoveries | The Arecibo Observatory. https://www.naic.edu/ao/legacy-discoveries.
- Video: Arecibo Observatory Telescope Collapses, Ending Era Of World-Class Research. NPR.org https://www.npr.org/2020/12/01/940767001/arecibo-observatory-telescope-collapses-ending-an-era-of-world-class-research.
- September 22, H. W. & 2017. Hurricane Maria Damages Parts of Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory. Space.com https://www.space.com/38242-arecibo-observatory-hurricane-maria-damage.html.
- Velho, R. Arecibo telescope’s fall is indicative of global divide around funding science infrastructure. The Conversation http://theconversation.com/arecibo-telescopes-fall-is-indicative-of-global-divide-around-funding-science-infrastructure-151734.
- Witze, A. Gut-wrenching footage documents Arecibo telescope’s collapse. Nature (2020) doi:10.1038/d41586-020-03421-y.
- NSF says it’s too early to decide whether to replace Arecibo. SpaceNews https://spacenews.com/nsf-says-its-too-early-to-decide-whether-to-replace-arecibo/ (2020).
- ago, D. E. U. 17 hours. Congress asks for report on Arecibo radio telescope collapse. Space.com https://www.space.com/arecibo-observatory-congress-report-puerto-rico-funding.html.
- Rebuild the Arecibo Observatory | We the People: Your Voice in Our Government. /petition/rebuild-arecibo-observatory.
- Gobernadora Wanda Vázquez Garced firma Orden Ejecutiva para establecer como política pública la reconstrucción del Observatorio de Arecibo | La Fortaleza. https://www.fortaleza.pr.gov/content/gobernadora-wanda-v-zquez-garced-firma-orden-ejecutiva-para-establecer-como-pol-tica-p-blica.
- Wanda Vázquez asigna $8 millones para la reconstrucción del radiotelescopio de Arecibo. El Nuevo Día https://www.elnuevodia.com/noticias/gobierno/notas/wanda-vazquez-asigna-8-millones-para-la-reconstruccion-del-radiotelescopio-de-arecibo/.