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Arecibo Observatory damaged by Hurricane Maria

Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory, home of the world’s second largest radio telescope, used for research in radio astronomy and study of Earth’s atmosphere, sustained damage when Hurricane Maria battered the island last week.

The telescope’s 1,000-foot (300-meter) dish reflector was pierced several times by a 96-foot (29-meter) line feed antenna that tumbled from a height of more than 328 feet (100 meters), where it had been suspended.

That particular line feed was used largely for atmospheric research. It transmitted and received radio waves at 430 MHz.

Arecibo’s weather station measured 78 mile (126 km) per hour winds on Wednesday, September 20, and gusts up to 108 miles (174 km) per hour.

Also destroyed was a 39-foot (12 meter) dish that served as a phase reference for Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI).

VLBI is a technique in which many separate radio telescopes are linked together in a network to function as a single, more powerful telescope.

In preparation for the storm, observatory staff had secured all facilities and equipment. Similar preparations had been made two weeks earlier in expectation of Hurricane Irma, but that storm took a different trajectory and did not hit Puerto Rico directly.

Staff members who remained at the facility during the hurricane are all safe. The Universities Space Research Association (USRA), one of several organizations that manage Arecibo Observatory for the National Science Foundation, is attempting to contact employees who rode out the storm in their homes or in shelters to make sure they are unharmed.

Because the island has no power, the observatory’s phone and Internet are out. All communication to and from the site is being conducted via shortwave radio.

Transportation for those not on site remains impossible because the area’s roads are filled with debris.

“We will need a full assessment of the damage, repairs that are needed, and when the observatory can resume operations,” said USRA senior vice president for science Nicholas White.

Built in the 1960s, Arecibo has been used to study a wide range of astronomical objects, from black holes and dark matter to pulsars, galaxies, planets, and asteroids.

It has sent signals into space to search for intelligent alien life and also monitored incoming signals in an attempt to determine whether any might be coming from extraterrestrial civilizations.

Arecibo’s visitor center will be closed at least through Wednesday, September 27.

 

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