Some Damage to Arecibo Observatory; Stormy Times Ahead

Arecibo and its team rode out the largest storm in its history, but it's still unclear what the moderate damage will mean for the radio observatory's future.

Update (September 28th): Despite the loss of Arecibo's line feed antenna, a San Juan, Puerto Rico, newspaper El Nuevo Dia stated yesterday that astronomical observations at the observatory will resume this Friday. The article contains a good image of Arecibo post-Maria as well.

A statement from the NSF adds, "As a result of the relatively intact Arecibo Observatory infrastructure, the observatory is currently being used as a search and rescue hub by FEMA. At this time, we cannot predict when research operations at Arecibo Observatory might resume, however, test observations to evaluate performance have begun."

Arecibo

The team at Arecibo after hurricane Maria. The base of the lost feed antenna can be seen missing in the background.
Arecibo Facebook page

The U.S. island territory and the people of Puerto Rico took a huge direct hit from powerful Hurricane Maria last week, when it made landfall as a category 4 storm on Wednesday, September 20th.The catastrophic storm caused widespread flooding, dam breeches, knocked out communications, and left a majority of the island without power for what could be months. This was this first hurricane to make landfall on the island at category 4 strength since the San Ciprian Hurricane, which struck Puerto Rico in 1932.Hurricane Maria came on the heels of Hurricane Irma, which at devastated several Caribbean Islands and the Florida Keys and skirted just north of Puerto Rico earlier in September, and Hurricane Harvey, which caused major flooding in the Houston, Texas, area.Even a week later, the damage to communication infrastructure was so complete that we're just now seeing the extent of the storm's full impact.

NWS damage

Damage to a Doppler radar tower outside San Juan, Puerto Rico, by Hurricane Maria.
National Weather Service

Arecibo Observatory Rides Out the HurricaneThe eye of Hurricane Maria skirted just a few miles to the northeast of the large Arecibo radio observatory, which sustained winds up to 108 miles per hour.We just started seeing posts on Arecibo's Facebook page this past weekend. The team on site is safe and in contact with the Universities Space Research Association, the organization that operates the observatory, via shortwave ham radio."All the staff and their families that sheltered at the observatory are safe," says Nicholas White (USRA). "We have contact with most staff who were offsite, though a few still remain to check in — given the difficulties with communications on the island, this is most likely the reason."

Maria Aqua

Earth-observing Aqua satellite imaged Hurricane Maria from space.
NASA

Thus far the only confirmed damage to Arecibo is the loss of the line feed to the main dish, which also damaged some main dish panels when it snapped off and fell. The 450-megahertz line feed is used to study the Earth's upper atmosphere and may cost millions to repair. However, the main receiver suspended high above the 305-meter dish is still intact.

Arecibo Line Feed

A close up look at Arecibo's line feed antenna, which broke off during the hurricane.
NRAO / NSF

There were also early reports that a secondary 40-foot dish used for Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) work was lost, but USRA senior vice president Nicholas White told NPR this past Monday that the secondary dish was damaged, but not entirely destroyed by Maria."The observatory staff are at the site assessing the damage, what repairs might be needed and when astronomy, planetary radar and atmospheric radar operations can resume," says White. "At this point, we must wait for that assessment before anything further can be said."Suspended over a giant natural sinkhole, the Arecibo dish was the world's largest radio telescope until China's completion of the Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in 2016. As it's built into the geography, Arecibo can't point in different directions — it simply points at the zenith from its 18.3° north latitude vantage point— but its partially movable Beam Steering mechanism allows it to point 20° from the zenith north to south.A list of Arecibo accomplishments spans the early Space Age right up to the present day:

  • Arecibo was used to determine the rotation rate of Mercury in 1964.
  • The radio telescope was key to the discovery and study of millisecond and binary pulsars.
  • The very first exoplanet system orbiting pulsar PSR B1257+12 was discovered by Arecibo researchers in 1990.
  • Arecibo also employs powerful radar transmitters, which created the first images of near-Earth asteroid 4769 Castalia in August 1989. Radar images and videos of near-Earth objects were becoming routine before Hurricane Maria hit.
  • The radio telescope also beamed a message towards the globular cluster M13 in the constellation Hercules in 1974.
2015 TB145

Arecibo radar imaged the "Halloween asteroid," 2015 TB145.
NAIC-Arecibo / NSF

Arecibo even made appearances in movies over the years, including the James Bond 1995 film Golden Eye and the 1997 science fiction film Contact starring Jodi Foster.Stormy Times AheadThe damage to Arecibo adds to the uncertainty for the facility's future. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the idea of pulling the plug on the facility has come up over the years, and damage from Maria might play a role in funding of this giant and historic radio observatory.How you can help: PBS Newshour has a link listing agencies that are all taking donations for hurricane relief for Puerto Rico.

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