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Space + FlightSpace & Flight

This Observatory Protects Us From Asteroids Far, Far Away

Arecibo Observatory is Earth's first line of defense against asteroids. It's still recovering from Hurricane Maria.

ByAna Aceves, Allison EckNOVA NextNOVA Next
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Do you recall this scene from the movie “Contact”?

That huge, suspended contraption is Arecibo Observatory: Earth’s first line of defense against asteroids. It has the most powerful astronomical radar in the world, and it’s the second-largest radio telescope. A collection of disciplines engage in work there, from radio astronomy to planetary science to atmospheric and space sciences.

And guess what? It’s in Puerto Rico.

When Hurricane Maria tore through the island one year ago on Thursday, Arecibo received a battering. A line feed—or antenna—that receives and transmits radio waves snapped and fell into the dish, poking a hole in it that has since been repaired. However, workers at Arecibo have noticed that the dish isn’t reflecting signals as accurately as it did before the storm.

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“One year later, the line feed has to be fixed—but they’re planning on fixing it,” says Anne Virkki, research scientist and head of the planetary radar research group at Arecibo. “The dish still is pending for recalibration.” She says the gain of the dish, a measure of how much power is transmitted in the direction of peak radiation, has dropped about 30%. Despite the decrease in sensitivity, the observatory was back up and running—doing observations and more—by December.

“I think Arecibo has a huge future,” says Eliana Nossa, a research associate at Arecibo. “Arecibo is different than other facilities in the sense that this is like a laboratory. We are not a rigid facility. Though this facility is more than 50 years old, we have top-of-the-line instrumentation and we have new proposals every day. Our challenge now is for scientists that could be interested in doing observations here, for them to come back after the hurricane—for them to come back to bring ideas, to do new things, to participate in this kind of scientific community that is around Arecibo.”

Don’t miss our video on Arecibo here , and find the rest of our series, Puerto Rico Moves Forward , on our Facebook page and on NOVA Next .

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