The Arecibo Telescope Is Damaged — And That’s A Big Deal

A report from NPR. You can listen to the podcast here.

MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You’re listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR. The first word Ed Rivera-Valentin ever spoke was luna – moon in Spanish. Ed grew up on the northern coast of Puerto Rico near the Arecibo telescope.

ED RIVERA-VALENTIN: The reason I am in astronomy and planetary science is because of that telescope. My parents took me up there when I think I was 3. I remember looking over and just being completely and utterly stunned. And getting to know that that type of science and that an instrument so valuable for the entire world was literally in my backyard was something that just told me, OK, this is what I have to do. I have to be part of this community. I have to get to do this really cool science.

SOFIA: Ed does really cool science. They even ended up working at the telescope itself for several years.

RIVERA-VALENTIN: I’ve heard people say that when they go up to it, it’s almost a religious experience. You approach…

SOFIA: The telescope is huge. The dish is a thousand feet in diameter and covers just about 20 acres. Suspended above is a 900-ton platform that holds a bunch of scientific instruments. It was constructed in the 1960s, and now, Ed says that the telescope has permeated much of Puerto Rican culture.

RIVERA-VALENTIN: When you’re walking around San Juan and looking at the art, artists are making paintings of the telescope. That’s how ingrained the telescope is in our culture.

SOFIA: These days, Ed’s a planetary scientist with the University Space Research Association at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. That’s where they were when they heard the news that Arecibo, the telescope, had suffered major damage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Speaking Spanish).

RIVERA-VALENTIN: So in early August, one of the wires that helped to suspend the platform in the air came off. It snapped off. In your mind, imagine it kind of like a rubber band because it comes off with force, and it hit the side of the Gregorian dome. And then it came down and slammed onto the dish, causing a hole to form and a lot of those panels to be broken.

SOFIA: Got you. So, you know, what went through your mind when you heard about this damage, Ed?

RIVERA-VALENTIN: When you’re working at a telescope as a scientist, as an engineer, as anyone at a telescope, that facility is almost, you know, a second home for you. And when you come to your house and you see it broken, obviously, you’re going to feel something for it. So the next part that at least came to my mind was, OK, I know what these people are going through. I need to send them a big box of chocolate or something because they’re going to need this.

SOFIA: So today on the show, a closer look at the Arecibo Observatory, what’s at stake with the recent damage and the unique role the telescope plays in both scientific research and popular culture. I’m Maddie Sofia, and you’re listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: So let’s step back for a minute, Ed, and get a better sense of how the telescope has been used over the years. Tell me about, you know, what it does, what kind of projects it’s worked on.

RIVERA-VALENTIN: So one of the really neat things about the Arecibo Observatory is that it’s a very versatile scientific instrument. Most telescopes, most radio telescopes, don’t have the ability to send out light. They only capture light. At the observatory, we can send and capture light. When an asteroid’s coming by, we are pretty much a flashlight that we turn on. We send radar out to it, and that radar comes back.

SOFIA: Right.

RIVERA-VALENTIN: We can tell you how far these objects are down to a few meters.

SOFIA: Unbelievable, Ed.

RIVERA-VALENTIN: Yeah, right? And we care about where these asteroids are going to be because what if, one day, this thing comes around and gets too close to Earth? But if we can let people know this is going to happen next year, we can actually prepare for it. Like, the dinosaurs – they didn’t have a space program, so they didn’t get to prepare for anything.

SOFIA: That’s true. We do have that on the dinosaurs. We don’t have much, but we have Arecibo, and we have the (laughter) our direct understanding of asteroids because of it.

RIVERA-VALENTIN: Exactly.

SOFIA: And, you know, I also think, just from an outsider’s perspective, like, this telescope does really play a role in our cultural imagination. It contributes to our sense of awe, you know, about the universe. Like, I think I remember in the ’70s, it was used to deliberately beam a message into space, you know, like, hey; we’re here. Like, I mean, it really has, like, not only these scientific contributions but these cultural contributions. It’s like – it’s an inspirational place, you know?

RIVERA-VALENTIN: Oh, yeah. I love Marvel. I love Marvel comics and things like that.

SOFIA: Sure. Sure.

RIVERA-VALENTIN: And I was watching, although I’m a little old – doesn’t matter – I was watching a cartoon about the Avengers, and the Avengers were flying off to the Arecibo Observatory to save it.

SOFIA: What?

RIVERA-VALENTIN: How cool was that – still, today, in the cartoon?

SOFIA: Oh, my gosh. So yeah – so it really is, you know – it’s not, like, one of those fields of science or scientific tools that really stays in academia, right? It provides a broader context for understanding the universe for non-academics as well, which I think is really special and important.

RIVERA-VALENTIN: Yeah. It’s – like I mentioned, because of its versatility, it gets to be part of not only applied science but, you know, just part of typical day-to-day life. You may not see it, but it’s there in the cultural context. It’s there, you know, saving your life, making sure this asteroid is not coming towards you. It’s really cool.

SOFIA: So it sounds like, Ed, this recent damage has, you know, big implications in terms of slowing down a lot of research. What kind of research are we going to be missing out on right now with it down?

RIVERA-VALENTIN: Well, from a personal perspective, I actually had some observing runs that were going to come up in late September through October where we were going to be studying Mars with radar. This year Mars was going to be the closest it was going to be and also observable from the Arecibo Observatory until the year 2067. So this year was literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe Mars with Arecibo.

SOFIA: 2020, Ed, 2020.

RIVERA-VALENTIN: Worst year ever.

SOFIA: Yeah. OK, so the cable damage that happened this year isn’t the first hurdle for the observatory, right? Hurricane Maria damaged the observatory in 2017. You were working there, right? Like, tell me about that experience.

RIVERA-VALENTIN: So 2017, when Hurricane Maria came by, not only was – I was still working at the observatory. I actually stayed at the observatory. That’s where I went for shelter. So I got…

SOFIA: Wow.

RIVERA-VALENTIN: …To see the winds come by and the damage.

SOFIA: Yeah.

RIVERA-VALENTIN: For me, one of the things that, like, hit me the most or made me realize the damage the most – after the hurricane, when we went outside – and when you look across the telescope, you know, it’s in the middle of a beautiful rainforest, greenery everywhere. And that day after the hurricane, when we went outside, there was no green left. It…

SOFIA: Oh, my goodness.

RIVERA-VALENTIN: Just nothing – it was just brown. Everything was brown. The trees were dead. You could see all the way down to the soil. It was, I guess, impactful in the sense of, wow, this is the damage of the hurricane but also impactful as a Puerto Rican who’s used to seeing their island be beautiful and green. Suddenly, you go outside and, like, that’s gone. It was all gone in a day.

SOFIA: That’s tough. That – you know, it starts being quite a bit less about the science at that point.

RIVERA-VALENTIN: Oh, very quickly. I mean, after the hurricane, when there was no utilities at all on the island, we still had a couple of generators. So people from Arecibo would drive up. We’d pump water for them, and they could leave with a bunch of water. They didn’t have to, you know, not drink water.

SOFIA: Wow. So, OK, Ed. Let’s talk a little bit about the funding struggles – right? – because there have been ongoing funding struggles for the telescope. Break that down a little bit for me.

RIVERA-VALENTIN: Yeah. So the telescope, which is owned by the National Science Foundation, has had some funding struggles in that the budget that is used to operate it has been going down. And it’s gone down from anywhere from about 14 mil (ph) per year. With the expected current contract, it could go all the way down to 2 million.

SOFIA: Got you. And so what will that mean for the telescope and the people that work on it?

RIVERA-VALENTIN: So as there is diminishing funds going there, there’ll be less available time for people to, you know, go explore or go observe pulsars and find the first evidence for gravitational waves, which won the telescope a Nobel Prize in physics in 1993.

SOFIA: Yeah.

RIVERA-VALENTIN: It’s less and less science.

SOFIA: So, you know, this telescope is obviously an exceptional scientific tool. You know, you’ve told me, maybe even more importantly, it sounds like it’s important to a lot of people in Puerto Rico. With all of these challenges it’s facing, you know, what are your hopes for the observatory long-term, Ed?

RIVERA-VALENTIN: So I know that many people, when they look at an instrument, even their own car – you don’t keep a car after – what? – 10 years or something like that. When you see an instrument that’s aging, you immediately go, OK, maybe it’s time to get something new. A telescope like the Arecibo Observatory, although it’s going on beyond 50 years, it doesn’t mean all of the instruments there are that old. It has been updated. It has been upkept. There’s still really neat science that is being done. Just a couple years ago this radio astronomical phenomenon called fast radio bursts – FRBs, or as I like to call them, Furbies – were spotted with Arecibo data, right? This completely new thing that we hadn’t seen before – new data, new science, just, you know, these couple of past years. We don’t know what new science can be done with a telescope unless we keep observing, unless we keep looking, right?

So my personal hope is in the acknowledgement of the fact that the observatory is still an incredibly important instrument for scientific progress. My hope is that we keep it, we keep it open, we keep doing great science with it, and we keep doing great science with it on the island, getting to be part of my culture, getting to inspire new people to come into STEM fields, right? In my own field, in planetary science, the Latinx, Hispanic community is underrepresented by about 90%. But if we can use these type of instruments to inspire, to help bridge gaps, to help bridge opportunity gaps, we can get the field more diverse. We can actually bridge this low underrepresentation. So my hope is that Arecibo gets to continue be part of science but also gets to be part of the pipeline issue and gets to help remedy it.

SOFIA: All right, Ed. I learned a lot about the telescope. I’m very excited about it. Thank you for your time. I appreciate you, and I appreciate the observatory a lot more – even more somehow.

RIVERA-VALENTIN: Awesome. Thank you so much for inviting me. It was a real pleasure getting to talk with you.

SOFIA: This episode was produced by Brit Hanson, fact-checked by Viet Le and edited by Deborah George. I’m Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

One thought on “The Arecibo Telescope Is Damaged — And That’s A Big Deal

  1. Thank you for this information. Your posts are excellent and inspiring. I went to Arecibo in 1999 and it filled me with awe. I will write a post about this new scientific challenge for next Thursday.

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