CONTACT – The Wonder of the Arecibo Observatory Puerto Rico

View of Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico wit...


The dream –  had its origins in an idea of Professor William E. Gordon, then of Cornell University, who was interested in the study of the Ionosphere. Despite all sorts of funding adversities, his persistence paid off:
The reality – Arecibo Observatory, opened in 1963 and the setting for movies such as “Contact” with Jodi Foster and James Bond’s “Goldeneye” featuring Piers Brosnan and Sean Bean. This really is a “must see” even if you are not driven by the same agenda as myself. It truly is one of the modern wonders of the world and the fact that after almost 50 years of technological advancement in every facet of our planet, this still remains the world’s largest dish and recognized as one of the most important national centers for research in radio astronomy, planetary radar and terrestrial aeronomy.
What makes it so special? – The giant size of the reflector is the largest curved focusing antenna on the planet, which means it is the world’s most sensitive radio telescope. Other radio telescopes may require several hours observing a given radio source to collect enough energy for analysis whereas at Ariecibo this may require just a few minutes of observation.
And how cool is the following:  “On 16 November 1974 The Arecibo message was broadcast into space a single time via  frequency modulated radio waves. Because it will take 25,000 years for the message to reach its intended destination of stars (and an additional 25,000 years for any reply), the Arecibo message was more a demonstration of human technological achievement than a real attempt to enter into a conversation with extraterrestrials. In fact, the stars of M13 that the message was aimed at will no longer be in that location when the message arrives.According to the Cornell News press release of November 12, 1999, the real purpose of the message was not to make contact, but to demonstrate the capabilities of newly installed equipment.
Located in a karst topography in the north of Puerto Rico, the 20 acre dish is suspended within an enormous sinkhole feature (which is 1300  feet across). “The surface is made of almost 40,000 perforated aluminum panels, each measuring about 3 feet by 6 feet, supported by a network of steel cables strung across the underlying karst sinkhole. It is a spherical (not parabolic) reflector. Suspended 450 feet above the reflector is the 900 ton platform. Similar in design to a bridge, it hangs in midair on eighteen cables, which are strung from three reinforced concrete towers. One is 365 feet high, and the other two are 265 feet high”. All three tops are at the same elevation and along with the Gregorian dome are the only part of  the observatory visible from the road below.
In the same year that the Observatory opened (1963), my Father – a Scientist and engineer – took his wife and two young kids on a two-hour jaunt from San Juan, up the spiralling and largely unpaved tortuous route to the “new” Arecibo Observatory. All I remember was sitting on the transmission hump in the front of the “Punchbuggy” Volkswagen beetle retching with nausea at every change in direction and missed turning. The signposts in those days were virtually non-existent as this was not a tourist destination. I do recollect an extended stop in the gravel “car park” at our destination: So for me visiting this amazing “one-off” was a mixed bag of emotions – eager anticipation with a tinge of sadness and a feeling of intellectual inadequacy:
Anticipation because I’d been planning this since I knew we were coming to Puerto Rico again and we even flew out a day early to fit it in. I’d researched every aspect of this “attraction” from opening hours to directions and reviews. To be honest, the reviews weren’t comforting; many bewailing the poorly signposted route up to the site amidst a maze of unmarked side roads with even more discouraging anecdotal stories of these roads becoming rivers of mud during rainfall. And here’s the thing;  I hadn’t factored in rainfall as technically it wasn’t rainy season. Yes I know that these almost equatorial climates get a soaking most days and at the time of our visit it had already been raining for two 2 days non-stop. The skies were grey, low hanging and ominous.
Anyhow contrary to the reviews and following a refurbishment of the site and visitor centre, the signposts – old and new – were plentiful and at every junction.
Sadness because Dad passed away in 1966 without ever getting to witness the wonders of this radio dish – for instance it discovered the first quasar, the star like celestial objects that appear far from earth and emit powerful radio waves. He would have been fascinated by – and probably involved in – the advances in physics and space science facilitated by the construction of this dish; the gaps between imagination and reality that it’s presence has closed.
Now part of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC), a national research center operated by SRI International, USRA and UMET, under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (NSF), the range of discoveries in mathematics; physics and science unearthed through the many projects carried out at Arecibo, continues to ensure huge leaps forward in our understanding of the universe.
Why the Inadequacy – well, being challenged academically in the arenas of Maths and Physics,  I had only a rudimentary ability to process and comprehend many of the “superb” exhibits in the visitor centre!
Question: How does the  genius science and math gene skip generations?
For sure, I am not my Father’s daughter in these areas:
So Dad, this visit was for you – my eyes the conduit to your soul – hope you enjoyed it
Over and Out

One thought on “CONTACT – The Wonder of the Arecibo Observatory Puerto Rico

  1. Pingback: DaltonSkyGazer Observatory Build

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