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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.

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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!”

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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.

Animals,, Humans & Society,, Earth & Environment

Epidemic of skin lesions reported in reef fish

By Janet Raloff 5:58pm, August 1, 2012
A British-Australian research team has just found coral trout living on the south side of the Great Barrier Reef sporting dark skin raised, scablike, brown-black growths. Although the authors believe they’ve stumbled onto an epidemic of melanoma — a type of skin cancer — other experts have their doubts. Strong ones.
Humans & Society

So long Weekly Reader . . .

By Janet Raloff 12:12am, July 26, 2012
I read with sadness this week that Weekly Reader is about to disappear. As much as I’ll miss the idea of the venerable Weekly Reader living on, I also have to admit to a bit of a love/hate relationship with it. This conflict developed shortly after I joined the staff here. As soon as I identified my affiliation, people frequently asked: “Science News — hmmm: Isn’t that the Weekly Reader of science?”
Technology,, Humans & Society,, Nutrition,, Earth & Environment

FDA bans BPA in baby bottles, cups

By Janet Raloff 5:51pm, July 17, 2012
From now on, U.S. manufacturers may no longer produce polycarbonate baby bottles and sippy cups (for toddlers) if the clear plastic had been manufactured from bisphenol A, a hormone-mimicking compound. Long-awaited, the announcement is anything but a bold gesture. The Obama administration decided to lock this barn door after the cow had died.
Humans & Society,, Earth & Environment,, Chemistry,, Body & Brain

Putting BPA-based dental fillings in perspective

By Janet Raloff 6:29pm, July 16, 2012
A new study finds that children who have their cavities filled with a white composite resin known as bis-GMA appear to develop small but quantifiable drops in psychosocial function. To put it simply: Treated kids can become more moody, aggressive and generally less well adjusted.
Humans & Society,, Ecology

Warning to bats: Cuddle not

By Janet Raloff 4:57pm, July 5, 2012
Ecologist Kate Langwig of Boston University and her colleagues want Eastern bats to listen up: No more cuddling — at least during hibernation. Just keep those wings to yourselves.
Humans & Society,, Earth & Environment,, Body & Brain

Ozone: Heart of the matter

By Janet Raloff 12:15pm, June 26, 2012
As reported this week, breathing elevated ozone levels can mess with the cardiovascular system, potentially putting vulnerable populations — such as the elderly and persons with diabetes or heart disease — at heightened risk of heart attack, stroke and sudden death from arrhythmias. Is this really new? Turns out it is.
Humans & Society,, Earth & Environment

De-papering environmental summits

By Janet Raloff 11:38am, June 22, 2012
One token — but highly visible — gesture toward sustainability at the UN's 2012 Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio was a request for all attendees to shrink their paper footprints. Apparently, most complied.
Humans & Society,, Chemistry,, Earth & Environment

What's in your wallet? Another 'estrogen'

By Janet Raloff 2:07pm, June 20, 2012
A chemical cousin of bisphenol A, a hormone mimic, has turned up on banknotes from around the world in addition to tainting 14 other types of papery products. Owing to the near ubiquity of BPS in paper, human exposure is likely also “ubiquitous,” conclude the study's authors. Oh, and a second new study shows that BPS behaves like an estrogen.
Science & Society

Measuring how well kids do science

By Janet Raloff 10:14am, June 19, 2012
On June 19, the National Assessment of Educational Progress released the first national report card gauging the performance in hand-on and research-oriented interactive computer tasks by U.S. children. And the overall grades: Well, they show lots of room for improvement.
Technology,, Humans & Society,, Earth & Environment

Court ‘shares’ researchers’ e-mails, intellectual property

By Janet Raloff 11:28am, June 7, 2012
“A situation has arisen involving scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) that should concern all those who value the principles of academic freedom and responsibility,” warns top WHOI officials. They were responding to a court order requiring that two WHOI scientists turn over 3,500 emails and other documents to BP. Included in the information was intellectual property that outsiders could exploit.
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