Puerto Rico's Massive Telescope Is Still Running on Generators

The world's largest radio telescope is seen from the air in this Wednesday, March 26, 2003 photo at the Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico.

The world's largest radio telescope is seen from the air in this Wednesday, March 26, 2003 photo at the Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico. Tomas van Houtryve/AP File Photo

The Arecibo Observatory is facing months of costly repairs after Hurricane Maria struck in September.

Nearly two months after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, many residents are still without power and struggling to get access to water, food, and basic services. This week, a failed transmission line knocked out what little of the island’s electrical grid had been restored, temporarily leaving thousands of people in the dark once again.

The recovery from the devastating Category 4 hurricane is expected to be long and costly for all of Puerto Rico, including at the Arecibo Observatory, the world’s second-largest radio telescope, which sits in a mountain range in the island’s northwest.

As the storm approached Puerto Rico in September, several researchers remained at Arecibo to keep watch over the 305-meter-wide dish, taking shelter in concrete buildings with food, water, and fuel for generators. The staff made it through unharmed, and when the worst of Hurricane Maria passed, they found the facility had survived, with some damage. The main dish, while intact, lost some of its reflective panels, and most of a 29-meter-long antenna was destroyed. But it wasn’t as bad as they expected, considering Hurricane Maria’s 155-mile-per-hour winds. “It’s a thing to be thankful for,” Joan Schmelz, the observatory’s deputy director, told Science magazine back then.

The observatory was back up and running on generators a week after the hurricane hit. But as of this week, Arecibo still hasn’t resumed normal operations. The observatory is still running on generator power, according to Suraiya Farukhi, a spokesperson for the Universities Space-Research Association (USRA), one of Arecibo’s operators.

Right now, the radio telescope is locked in a single direction, a configuration meant to save energy, Science reports. Maneuvers to point the telescope in different spots would double fuel consumption, and fuel is in high demand on the island.

Arecibo has observed the skies since the 1960s, searching for stars, exoplanets, asteroids, and potential signals from extraterrestrial civilizations. The iconic observatory has served as a research base for, among others, Jill Tarter, the cofounder of the ET-searching SETI Institute; Frank Drake, the creator of the famous equation for estimating the number of potential alien civilizations; and the late Carl Sagan, perhaps the best-known advocate for space exploration. In 1993, astronomers won a Nobel Prize in physics for discovering of a new kind of pulsar—a fast-rotating star that emits beams of light—using the Arecibo dish. The observatory employed the fictional scientist Ellie Arroway in 1997’s Contact, a character inspired by Tarter.

Some worry the expensive repairs necessary to return Arecibo to normal may influence the National Science Foundation’s thinking on the observatory’s future. NSF, which owns Arecibo, has long considered reducing its annual contributions to the facility and even passing off management to another party. The NSF spends $8.3 million on operations each year, with NASA providing $3.6 million, according to Science. The National Science Board, which governs the NSF, is expected to publicly announce plans for Arecibo’s future next week.

One of the research facilities at Arecibo, the Planetary Habitability Laboratory, which is managed by the University of Puerto Rico, said the lab sustained “extensive damage to its walls, floor, computers, materials, and furniture” and is asking for help in rebuilding. “The lab is in the process now of a complete rebuild that might take a few weeks or even months,” a post on the laboratory’s website said Thursday. “Most of the structural damage to the lab should be covered by FEMA, the insurance, and the university. However, about $14,000 of damage to our furniture, computers, and scientific materials might not be covered.”

The scientists who work at Arecibo face their own personal recoveries. USRA said this week that it had shipped from Maryland to Puerto Rico 20 portable generators and donated them to USRA employees who badly need electricity in their homes.

Several employees who hunkered down at Arecibo during the hurricane, tweeting various updates—from the state of the observatory to the kinds of snacks they’d brought with them—continue to share news on social media. Their messages highlight the incredibly slow pace of recovery. “And, lo! Our water supply was restored!” Robert Minchin, head of radio astronomy at Arecibo, tweeted Wednesday, seven weeks after the hurricane arrived. “This morning I have water, power, and broadband at home!” he wrote a day later.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.