Hope in Arecibo | the press

Hope in Arecibo |  the press

Last fall, the cables supporting the famous Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico fell. A group of astrophysicists from the American island mobilizes to rebuild it.

Mathieu Perrault
the press

The project

Greater field of view thanks to a more maneuverable transmitter. More power, and therefore better resolution of the images of the observed celestial bodies. and increased predictability of solar storms that can affect satellites and manned space missions. These are some of the goals of the ambitious next-generation Arecibo telescope project, which was disrupted early this year by those in charge of the current Arecibo Observatory. “Until 2016, we had the world’s largest radio telescope in Puerto Rico. We definitely need to keep that experience,” explains Abel Mendes of the University of Puerto Rico in Arecibo. “Building new telescopes is becoming more difficult due to the social acceptance of the necessary entrepreneurship. We must take advantage of the site to preserve this wealth in the West. The new telescope project was presented to US authorities in March, and group discussions were scheduled for this summer with donor agencies and astronomers from US universities. “Nobody believed her,” Mendes says. For years, a lack of funding led the observatory to head straight to the wall. It took a breakdown to realize the importance of Arecibo. All stars are aligned to allow rebuilding. ”

Image provided by Arequibo Observatory

Arecibo Observatory after the first cable outage in August 2020


Built in the early 1960s, the observatory was damaged by two earthquakes, in 2014 and 2017. But as of 2020, two of the 20 or so cables supporting the 900-ton instrument platform have collapsed. “The addition of new, very heavy tools in 1997 weakened the chassis,” Mendes says. The event a year ago damaged the dome and forced a reassessment of the Arecibo Observatory’s future by the US National Science Foundation (NSF). A report in mid-November concluded that it should be demolished. Two weeks later, in early December, other cables retracted and the instrumentation dome fell on the dome.

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Watch videos of the collapse of the Arecibo Observatory

Image provided by FAST

Chinese fast telescope

Sender advantages:

Robert Lamontani, an astrophysicist at the University of Montreal, stresses that the Arecibo Observatory is still very useful for science. “It can transmit, which is not the case with all radio telescopes,” Lamontani said. This makes it possible to observe the upper atmosphere and ionosphere, as well as objects in the solar system with a return signal. We might also consider observing asteroids. China’s 500-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) has ousted Arecibo as the world’s largest radio telescope, but tensions with the Middle Kingdom could make a radio telescope in the United States intriguing, Lamontani notes. Another radio telescope, a network of about 1 square kilometer, located in South Africa and Australia, is under construction and will theoretically be larger than FAST, but since it is a network of about 100 antennas, it will in some cases have a lower resolution. It could take 10 years to build the next generation of the Arecibo telescope. “So the design team is thinking of two smaller and faster projects, either by reusing mirrors that are still good or by building a small dome,” explains Mendes, who specializes in the habitability of exoplanets. “It is important to maintain technical expertise in Puerto Rico.”

Image provided by Arequibo Observatory

Arecibo Observatory Building

Three discoveries thanks to the Arecibo telescope

Exoplanet: The first exoplanet was discovered in 1992 thanks to Arecibo. It was a coincidence: the maintenance of the dome was forced to observe one part of the sky. These two planets were orbiting pulsar PSR B1257 + 12, located 2,300 light-years away in the constellation Virgo. A pulsar is a star that rotates very quickly and emits periodic signals. Nobel: Arecibo was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1993 for his 1974 observation of circumstantial evidence of “gravitational waves,” a phenomenon predicted by Albert Einstein but not immediately observed before 2015. This scene in 1974 was a pulsar orbiting another star. Extraterrestrials: In 1974, two American astronomers, Frank Drake and Carl Sagan, wrote a message sent from Arecibo to the globular cluster M13, 22,000 light-years from Earth. A globular cluster is a very high concentration of stars. This entry contains 1679 pieces of information about Earth and human knowledge.

Soviet missiles

Initially, the Arecibo Observatory took advantage of the fear of Soviet missiles, after the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957. The Ministry of Defense funded the Upper Atmosphere Monitoring Project to detect these missiles. Then, in 1974 and 1997, two major improvements were made, including the famous “Gregorian dome” over the nave to increase the number of instruments available. She moved from Cornell University to the University of Central Florida, but dwindled with a short-lived decade to discover asteroids that could threaten Earth.

Arecibo in popular culture

In 1995, the Arecibo telescope became a base hidden under a Cuban lake in golden eyeJames Bond movie. The antenna was supposed to control a Russian satellite stolen by criminals.

Watch excerpts from golden eye (In English)

Arecibo Observatory played its own role in the 1997 film CallWith Jodie Foster. You play as an astronomer who discovers a strange message at the observatory.

Watch excerpts from Call (In English)

Arecibo in chiffres

$10 million: Initial cost to build the Arecibo Observatory between 1960 and 1963

US$33 million: The cost of improvements to the Arecibo Observatory in 1974 and 1997

$450 million: Estimated cost of the next generation Arecibo telescope

$30-50 million: Estimated cost of decommissioning Arecibo Observatory

$12 million: Arecibo’s annual operating budget through 2010

$2 million: Arecibo Observatory’s annual operating budget 2020-2023

Brunn: Arecibo Observatory

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