Science & the Public | Science News

ADVERTISEMENT

MISSION CRITICAL

Support credible science journalism.

Subscribe to Science News today.

Science & the Public

Where science
and society meet

Science News

Science & the Public


Science & the Public

New questions about Arecibo’s future swirl in the wake of Hurricane Maria

Arecibo Observatory

STILL STANDING STRONG  The Arecibo Observatory’s 305-meter main dish (seen here in 2014) was damaged by Hurricane Maria, but not as much as originally feared.

Sponsor Message

When Hurricane Maria’s 250-kilometer-per-hour winds slammed into Puerto Rico on September 20, they spurred floods, destroyed roads and flattened homes across the island. A week-and-a-half later, parts of the island remain without power, and its people are facing a humanitarian crisis.

The storm also temporarily knocked out one of the best and biggest eyes on the sky: the Arecibo Observatory, some 95 kilometers west of San Juan. The observatory’s 305-meter-wide main dish was until recently the largest radio telescope in the world (a bigger one, the FAST radio telescope, opened in China in 2016).

As news trickled out over the past week, it appeared that the damage may not be as bad as initially reported. The observatory is conserving fuel, but plans to resume limited astronomy observations September 29, deputy director Joan Schmelz tweeted earlier that day. “#AreciboScience is coming back after #MariaPR.”

But the direct whack still raises the issue of when – and even whether – to repair the observatory: Funding for it has repeatedly been on the chopping block despite its historic contributions to astronomy.

Arecibo’s recent work includes searching for gravitational waves by the effect they have on the clocklike regularity of dead stars called pulsars; watching for mysterious blasts of energy called fast radio bursts (SN Online: 12/21/16); and keeping tabs on near-Earth asteroids.

It played a key role in the history of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence: In 1974, astronomers Frank Drake, Jill Tarter and Carl Sagan used it to send messages to any extraterrestrial civilizations that might be listening (SN Online: 2/13/15). It was also the telescope that, in 1992, discovered the first planets outside the solar system.  

Arecibo also holds a special place in my personal history: Watching actress Jodie Foster use the giant dish to listen for aliens in the movie Contact when I was 13 cemented my desire to study astronomy. I chose to go to Cornell University for undergrad in part because the university managed Arecibo at the time, and I hoped I might get to go there. (I never did, but my undergrad adviser, Martha Haynes, uses Arecibo to study the distribution of galaxies in the local universe.) And one of the first science stories I ever had published was about Cornell professors testifying to the National Science Foundation, which owns Arecibo, to defend the observatory’s funding.

Ten years after that story ran in the Cornell Daily Sun, Arecibo’s funding situation is still in doubt. It’s not clear how the recent damage will affect its future.

Telescope operator Ángel Vázquez sent the first damage reports via short-wave radio on September 21. A line feed antenna, used to receive and transmit radio waves to study the Earth’s ionosphere, broke off and fell onto the observatory’s main dish, damaging some of its panels. A second, 12-meter dish was thought to have been destroyed entirely.

But the smaller dish survived with only minor damage. “Initial reports said it had just been blown away, but it turned out that was not correct,” says Nicholas White of the Universities Space Research Association, which co-operates the observatory with SRI International, a nonprofit headquartered in Menlo Park, Calif., and Metropolitan University in San Juan, Puerto Rico. “That looks like it’s fine, although obviously we have to get up there and check it out.”

On September 23, observatory director Francisco Córdova posted a picture to the observatory’s Facebook page of two staff members standing in front of the big telescope dish with an outstretched Puerto Rican flag. “Still standing after #HurricaneMaria!” the post declares. “We suffered some damages, but nothing that can’t be repaired or replaced!”

Story continues after image

The line feed antenna is a big loss, but it should be replaceable eventually, White says. And the damage to the main dish is fixable. Among the tasks was to get inside the Gregorian dome — the golf ball‒like structure suspended over the giant dish — and make sure the reflectors within it were aligned correctly. (Those reflectors were knocked askew by Hurricane George in 1998, says Cornell radio astronomer Donald Campbell.) 

Meantime, Arecibo staff, who managed to safely shelter in place during the storm, “have been showing up for work, funnily enough,” White says. “People just want to get back to normal.”

But normal is also a state of uncertainty. The NSF, which foots $8.3 million of the observatory’s nearly $12 million a year operating costs, has been trying to offload their responsibility for it for several years. (NASA covers the balance.) And NSF’s agreement with the three groups that jointly maintain and operate the observatory runs out in March 2018. In 2016, the NSF called for proposals for other organizations to take over after that.

The NSF can’t estimate yet how expensive the repairs will be or how long they will take to complete, so it’s reserving comment on how the damage will affect decisions about the observatory’s future. “We need to make a complete assessment,” says NSF program director Joseph Pesce.  

Personally, I hope the observatory remains open, both for science and for inspiration. I’m still waiting for a reply to that 1974 Arecibo message.

Science & Society,, Psychology

Online reviews can make over-the-counter drugs look way too effective

By Bruce Bower 2:48pm, March 14, 2017
Online patient reviews put a far more misleading spin on medications than clinical trials do.
Science & Society

Data-driven crime prediction fails to erase human bias

By Rachel Ehrenberg 10:00am, March 8, 2017
Software programs that predict where crimes will occur don’t eliminate bias; they exacerbate it.
Human Development,, Science & Society,, Health

Transgender children are at greater risk of mental health problems

By Laura Sanders 7:00am, March 1, 2017
The Trump administration has rescinded federal protections for transgender kids in public schools, a move that the American Academy of Pediatrics condemns.
Astronomy,, Technology

Citizen scientists are providing stunning new views of Jupiter

By Ashley Yeager 6:00am, February 17, 2017
A camera aboard NASA’s Juno spacecraft is giving citizen scientists a crack at discovering never-before-seen features of Jupiter.
Science & Society

Trump administration clampdowns on research agencies worry scientists

By Rachel Ehrenberg 4:00pm, January 26, 2017
Mixture of bans on federal research communications create confusion and fear.
Psychology,, Science & Society

You’ve probably been tricked by fake news and don’t know it

By Erika Engelhaupt 6:00am, December 4, 2016
In the fight against falsified facts, the human brain is both the weakest link and our only hope.
Technology,, Science & Society

Obama worried about research funding

By Janet Raloff 11:25am, April 30, 2013
Barack Obama offered yet another argument about why the current federal-budget stalemate is so risky: “[T]he sequester, as it’s known in Washington-speak — it’s hitting our scientific research.” As things now stand, “we could lose a year, two years of scientific research as a practical matter, because of misguided priorities here in this town.”
Technology,, Humans & Society,, Life & Evolution,, Genes & Cells,, Earth & Environment,, Ecology

Antarctic test of novel ice drill poised to begin

By Janet Raloff 12:37am, December 15, 2012
Any day now, a team of 40 scientists and support personnel expects to begin using a warm, high pressure jet of water to bore a 30 centimeter hole through 83 meters of ice. Once it breaks through to the sea below, they’ll have a few days to quickly sample life from water before the hole begins freezing up again. It's just a test. But if all goes well, in a few weeks the team will move 700 miles and bore an even deeper hole to sample for freshwater life that may have been living for eons outside even indirect contact with Earth’s atmosphere.
Humans & Society

This snowbird is really going SOUTH

By Janet Raloff 9:30am, December 6, 2012
Many people of a certain age (like my folks) enjoy flying south to warmer climes when winter weather threatens. I’m also flying south this December — but not to warm up. As a guest of the National Science Foundation, I’ll be checking out summer in the really deep South: Antarctica. Temps expected at certain sites I’m scheduled to visit, such as the South Pole, threaten to surpass the worst that my hometown will encounter in the dead of winter.
Subscribe to RSS - Science & the Public