rip arecibo

It seems a little strange to mourn an inanimate object. Perhaps it is the ideas the object represented that I am mourning.

The picture above shows, in all its glory, the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center in Puerto Rico, more commonly known as the Arecibo observatory. It was built in the 1960s with money from the Defense Department. Through the course of history, governments often favor their military when it comes to money and it should not be a surprise that much of the scientific research funded by the United States is funded by the Pentagon.

So Arecibo was sold as a device that could help in the development of an anti-missile defense. A 1,000 foot wide, 305-meter dish built into a natural ravine, the radio telescope could both transmit and receive signals from the sky above. That massive size, and the ability to transmit signals, made it unique. The military research was concluded in a fairly short time. Arecibo was transferred into the care of the NSF, the National Science Foundation.

For 57 years Arecibo welcomed scientists from around the world and contributed to a remarkable record of scientific achievement. It helped astronomers discover the first “exoplanet,” a planet orbiting a distant star, and to determine if that planet is habitable. That work won a Nobel Prize. It tracked asteroids heading our way and possibly threatening our Earth.

Arecibo was an inspiration and a popular training ground for graduate students in astronomy. It was also one of Puerto Rico’s leading tourist spots, drawing 90,000 visitors a year. It had a starring role, as a dramatic background, in the film Contact and the James Bond film GoldenEye.

In August a cable holding the 900-ton electronics platform over the dish broke lose from its socket and fell into the dish 400 feet below. The NSF sent engineers to plan repairs, and a replacement cable was ordered. But then in November another cable broke, and engineers determined that any attempt to repair was simply too dangerous to attempt. The NSF announced Arecibo would be dismantled. Scientists protested, and searched for a way to repair the damage. But then on December 3 Arecibo itself ended the discussion. Another cable broke and the entire platform came crashing down, the sequence captured in painful detail by a NSF camera.

There are calls now to replace Arecibo. But that is estimated to cost $300 million, and Congress is not in the mood. Congress hasn’t been in the mood for scientific research for decades. Once the Apollo astronauts had reached the moon, a project as much a competition with the Soviet Union as a scientific endeavor, America’s appetite for big, and usually expensive, science research dried up. You go to CERN on the Swiss-French border to study particle physics today. America’s Superconducting Super Collider is just an empty hole in Texas. The Space Shuttle was retired without a replacement. And the Hubble Space Telescope was almost abandoned when it needed repair.

The NSF had been starving Arecibo for years. Did the lack of funds contribute to the collapse of the observatory? Could a more aggressive maintenance program have discovered the problems in time for a repair? We’ll never know. What we do know is that the Chinese have built a radio telescope similar to the Arecibo design, although at 500-meters, the Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) is much larger. The next generation of astronomers will be heading there. The International Space Space is showing its age. An oxygen generator in the Russian module has been problematic. The American segment has developed problems with the power supply. Will there be a replacement ten years down the road? Will Americans participate? I’m not placing any bets.

What’s $300 million? One-tenth of one percent of the total national defense budget. Also about the cost of a replacement for the Pentagon, which the military wants. One thing Arecibo could do that the Chinese FAST cannot, thanks to the transmitter it had in its design for military purposes, is track near earth objects. We’ll be able to reflect on that when an asteroid heads in our direction. If we’re lucky and it misses.


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