Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory has functioned as our first line of defense against looming asteroids for over 50 years. Home of the most powerful astronomical radar and the second-largest radio telescope on Earth, Arecibo and its team of researchers are also responsible for the discovery of pulsars. After Hurricane Maria hit, Arecibo’s staff worked to rebuild crucial parts of the Observatory—and extended a helping hand to the nearby community.
The Arecibo Observatory
Published: September 26, 2018
Onscreen: This giant concrete & metal dish in Puerto Rico has been our first line of defense against asteroids for more than 50 years. This is the Arecibo Observatory…the most powerful astronomical radar on Earth and the second largest radio telescope.
Then came Hurricane Maria.
Eliana Nossa: It was devastating. It was, it was terrible…the constant question for everyone: is the platform there?
Onscreen: The platform and its dome hold a radio receiver that can help locate an asteroid millions of miles away. It also supports several antennae that have helped make big discoveries…Like the first planet orbiting another star and the existence of pulsars, rotating cores left over from supernovae.
The platform did survive the hurricane. But part of an antenna fell and poked a hole into the dish. Power and communication systems also went down.
Abel Méndez: I was not at the observatory when Hurricane Maria. I have many friends here, many colleagues working here. I tried to contact them for weeks. We don't know what was going on.
Nossa: Going around the facility, it was floods everywhere, debris everywhere…there was at least one week that we couldn’t think about anything else, just cleaning. It didn’t matter if it was the director, or if it was the janitor, everyone, everyone was doing something, was cleaning, like sweeping, like cutting branches.
Onscreen: Days after the hurricane, Arecibo’s generators started working, providing just enough power to do some science. But it also opened its doors to become a relief center.
Anne Virkki: We have our own water pumps, so when the majority of the nearby community was out of the grid water service, they were able to come to the observatory and get the water from here.
Onscreen: Researchers and staff went out into the neighboring community to deliver food and medical supplies, and rebuild homes.
Méndez: Puerto Ricans are very proud of the Arecibo observatory. And especially after Hurricane Maria and there's a sense of pride, community, and a lot of people were helping each other.
Nossa: It’s the feeling that we are part of the community, that we’re not isolated. And that was beautiful… We are human beings and we were survivors of this huge event.
Onscreen: A year later, the facility is almost back to its previous condition. The holes in the dish were patched.
And in December, 2017 Arecibo took hi-res images of the asteroid Phaethon during its close approach to Earth.
Virkki: We can find the asteroids’ shapes…and get some idea of their surface composition in terms of surface roughness or what they are made of.
Onscreen: But there’s more work to be done.
Virkki: Some of the dish is still distorted, which means that it doesn’t reflect the signals as effectively.
Onscreen: Repairs will continue over the next months. And hopes are high for the discoveries to come.
Nossa: I think Arecibo has a huge future. There is not a limitation in the science that we can do here. This is an opportunity maybe to, instead of saying “We’re going to build the same thing,” maybe “How can we do it better?” We are trying to recover, people were saying, “Oh my goodness, if you are recovering, the island can recover.”
PRODUCTION CREDITS Digital Producer Ana Aceves Director of Photography Michael Rivera Production Assistance Ari Daniel
Aparna Nathan Editorial Review Julia Cort © WGBH Educational Foundation 2018 MEDIA CREDITS Visuals Arecibo Observatory
Arecibo Observatory / NASA / NSF
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Videoblocks Music APM POSTER IMAGE (main image: Arecibo Observatory) © WGBH Educational Foundation 2018