Obituary for the Arecibo Telescope

By Julia Simpson

Isaac Newton famously wrote that “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” For 57 years, humanity stood on the metaphorical shoulders of the Arecibo telescope and uncovered far-reaching, incredible insights about our universe. As of December, that giant has fallen.

Picture a rocky valley in the middle of a vast, dense forest, rich in limestone and of concave geography1.  It’s 1960, and under the supervision of the US military2 and Cornell professor William Gordon,1,3 a construction project is under way. By the end of 19633, the limestone valley holds a feat of technological and engineering prowess powerful enough to send broadcasts thousands of light-years into space, monitor asteroids and planets, and collect depths and volumes of data faster and more precisely than ever before2,4.

The Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico is initially built to study the ionosphere, the atmospheric region where northern lights dance, to help bolster US military missile defenses. Despite this pragmatic beginning, the telescope soon establishes itself as the pinnacle of astronomical research. To gather data across such vast distances – distances unmoored from any arbitrary human sense of scale – it’s fitting that the instrument, too, be of an otherworldly magnitude. The Arecibo radio telescope dish is 1,000 feet across, 167 feet deep, and stretches over 20 acres1 – the area of 15 football fields. A 900-ton observational platform is suspended above the telescope, and an observatory is built around it.

Figure 1. The massive Arecibo radio telescope, nestled in a limestone valley in the mountainous forests of Puerto Rico. This photograph was taken prior to the recent damage, as is clear from the intact condition of the 900-ton observational platform suspended above the instrument. 

It’s 1967 when the instrument makes its first major discovery: Mercury’s planetary rotation takes 59 days, not 88 as was previously thought4,5. Man walks on the moon in 1969, and all eyes are on the sky now: the space race is officially on, rocketing public and scientific interest to unprecedented heights. The Arecibo telescope rises to this enthusiasm with increasingly groundbreaking achievements. By 1974 the telescope has facilitated the discovery of the first binary pulsar5, a radio-signal-producing star in spiraling orbit of another star6. Measurements from this finding support Einstein’s Relativity Theory and win Hulse and Taylor a Nobel Prize5. 1974 is also the year that SETI, the “Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence” organization, uses Arecibo to beam into space a three-minute message of encoded visuals: images of things like DNA base pairs, atomic numbers of Earth’s most common elements, the basic human physical form, and the shape of the Arecibo telescope itself. The message is directed towards the M13 globular star cluster, and it’s the first intentional broadcast from Earth explicitly for extraterrestrials. The transmission is as much a symbol of human achievement as it is a long-distance message for an alien answering machine5.

Now it’s 1981 and the Arecibo telescope produces the first radar maps of Venus; 1992, and the instrument finds ice at the poles of Mercury5. In 1994, X-Files screenwriters center their season 2 premiere plot around a mysterious radio transmission picked up by the Arecibo observatory7, and in 1995, the actual observatory is a shooting location for the Goldeneye James Bond film1,8. By now, Arecibo is entrenched not only in scientists’ hearts, but the world’s imagination. When the Arecibo observatory opens for tourists in 1997, it’s soon seeing over 100,000 visitors a year. Greater public interest sparks a plethora of outreach programs, educational opportunities, and student research initiatives at the observatory. At this point, the Arecibo telescope and observatory are entities of national pride in Puerto Rico, a symbol of success and scientific progress4,9 – but there are stormy skies ahead.

In 2000, the National Science Foundation lays off a swath of Arecibo astronomers and discusses funding cuts to focus on building new telescopes. This fosters mistrust from the Puerto Rican people towards the NSF. The foundation represents an arm of the colonial US government that wields power over Arecibo, while the Puerto Ricans – continuously denied statehood and thus Congressional representation – still have no say on annual funding for the observatory9. As another decade passes, the world’s eyes turn from the skies, focusing on fixing problems at home. Meanwhile, Arecibo continues making revolutionary discoveries: in 2003, the telescope finds hydrocarbon lakes on Saturn’s moon Titan2, and in 2015, the Nanograv project uses Arecibo to study pulsars, searching for ripples in spacetime induced by supermassive black holes2. Then 2017 arrives, and with it, Hurricane Maria. The storm tears through Puerto Rico, killing hundreds and decimating the power grid, leaving many without electricity for months. The mainland US aid response is grossly inadequate and reprehensibly slow. The telescope sustains some damage in the disaster1,9.  Three years later, more funding cuts are announced1 – but the observatory works on, the telescope keeps looking up, and the scientists, Puerto Rican people, and astronomy community worldwide continue to look forward.

Now it’s Monday, August 10th, 2020, and the global scientific focus has imploded. Attention is consumed by the virus and pandemic that has overtaken us. Just yesterday, a 5.1 earthquake hit California and the US confirmed Covid-19 cases passed 5 million. Down in the forests of Puerto Rico, a supporting cable of the Arecibo telescope slips out of its socket2,9,10. The instrument, and the scientists attuned to it, are shaken. Repair efforts are planned. In a blink, it’s November 9th, and before repairs for the August damage can occur, a second cable snaps.

The NSF sends in an engineer evaluation team; following their assessment, a decommission order is issued. They call not just for shutting down the telescope, but demolishing it as soon as possible2,4,9,10,11,. The telescope is wounded, yes, but the announcement too is a wound, a blow to the scientific community and the people of Puerto Rico, who are enraged and devastated by the proclamation12.

Now it’s December 1st, 7:55 in the morning4,10. Picture the forest, the open sky above, and the telescope dish of godlike scale turned up towards the great expanse. In the middle of this, something breaks.

The 900-ton platform suspended above the dish abruptly and violently crashes down2,4,9,11. Nobody is hurt10, but for the telescope, the impact is fatal. Repairs are impossible. After 57 operational years, the life of the Arecibo telescope is over. Some might call this a natural death; I view it as a strangulation. Dennis Overbye, a science writer since 1975, describes the financial support given to Arecibo by its parent institutions a “starvation diet.”11. One Puerto Rican astronomer, Saida Caballero-Nieves, connects the this treatment back to colonialism, commenting that the telescope wouldn’t have been neglected and maintenance wouldn’t have been slow to arrive if Arecibo was treated the same as mainland facilities. Emily Alicea-Muñoz, a radio astronomer who grew up in Puerto Rico and now researches physics at Georgia Institute of Technology, says that losing the telescope was like losing an elderly relative9.

Paola Figueroa-Delgado, a cell biology PhD student Yale, did a high school research program at Arecibo, and she says this experience is what trained her to be a scientist: it was there that she was first exposed to the idea of 3D printed organs when considering the challenges of sustainability in space9. Overbye, the science writer, describes his 1968 visit to the observatory as a “sci-fi dream of an experience, all that gleaming white high-tech in the midst of the jungle mountains.” He remarks in a recent New York Times editorial11 that “when covering science, you learn that some of the things that have the biggest emotional pull with the public are not always the things that have the biggest weight in the scientific community.”  

We here at the Penn State College of Medicine are part of the scientific community, but most of our endeavors are far removed from the efforts and accomplishments of the Arecibo telescope, so I wanted to take this opportunity to induce some of that emotional pull. Popular movements are already in motion advocating for building a new telescope where the old one stood, to continue the legacy of Arecibo and maintain the observatory as a center for scientific and Puerto Rican pride4,9,12. I hope this push succeeds. Regardless, we should acknowledge the loss of the Arecibo telescope, a loss that may be closer to the scale of the celestial bodies the telescope watched than the human bodies that watched over it. This loss deserves to be felt.



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