The Arecibo Telescope and The Legacy That Remains

Valene M., journalist

Guarded by three concrete towers, admired by the 900-ton observatory that hung so precariously over it, and equipped with shining aluminum panels to stretch its 1,000ft diameter, the Arecibo Telescope was a colossal structure, both in physical size and historical significance. For 57 years, this giant, which was the world’s largest radio telescope until recently, proved itself an invaluable center for radio astronomy as it mapped planets, guided spacecrafts, tracked asteroids, and searched for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. This last August, its end began when one of 18 cables suspending its hovering observatory slipped and crashed into the panels at the edge of the dish. The damage then was not irreparable, but on November 6th, another cable snapped in half and gouged the center of the dish. With two cables out of commission, the platform above it was in danger of falling at any moment, making repair too dangerous to attempt. The National Science Foundation closed the dish permanently and prepared for its controlled demolition. Then on December 1st, the platform and the 900 tons of instruments that it held came crashing down, sealing the telescope’s fate.

The destruction of the Arecibo Telescope came as a shock and devastated many in the scientific community. “It’s just unbelievable,” said Robert Kerr, a former director of the observatory, according to Nature. The research in the telescope’s science departments, including its cutting-edge asteroid studies, has been cut off. Although some of its projects can be transferred to other facilities, without Arecibo’s equipment, many have become impossible according to Nature. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia acknowledged this loss, as documented by Nature , with concise gravity: “The Arecibo Telescope is irreplaceable.” The observatory also acted as a major center for science education in Puerto Rico, became a pop-culture icon with movies like Contact (1997),  and inspired countless astronomers and engineers. 

When one views the Arecibo Telescope through these varied facets of its identity, the depth and breadth of its influence is made clear. Throughout its near six decades, the Arecibo Telescope impacted not only science but culture, and, in doing so, it shaped the people immersed in that culture. It changed lives, and even now, WIRED assures that many scientists are discussing how to “extend the Arecibo legacy” for future generations. Joanna Rankin, a professor of astronomy and and pulsar expert who had used the Arecibo Observatory since 1969, and Mary Fillmore, the writer who often accompanied her there, encapsulated the spirit behind these efforts when they wrote, “The Arecibo Observatory is, after all, far more than a telescope.” For many, this is true in one form or another. For some it was a passion and for others a hobby. One could have seen it as a bridge to distant worlds and discovery, while still others could have very well seen it as the embodiment of the “audacious dream” Rankin and Fillmore said it was built on. Whatever the case, it is clear that while Arecibo may no longer guide spacecrafts, for now at least, it will continue to guide people.

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