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Hurricane damage threatens Arecibo Observatory’s future

As Hurricane Maria hammered the Caribbean last week, a handful of researchers hunkered down in concrete buildings at the Arecibo Observatory with food, well water, and thousands of gallons of diesel fuel for generators. They had done their best to secure the observatory, a 305-meter-wide radio dish nestled in the karst hills of northwestern Puerto Rico. They stowed removable antennas and waveguides, locked movable instrument packages in place, and installed storm shutters on control room windows. Now, they have emerged to find only moderate damage to the observatory, on an island that has been devastated elsewhere. “It’s a thing to be thankful for,” says Arecibo Deputy Director Joan Schmelz.

But many are worried that the damage, likely on the scale of millions of dollars and apt to keep the observatory closed for weeks or months, will further threaten the existence of Arecibo, which is already on a short list of facilities facing possible closure or downsizing by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia. “I fear that if there is significant damage, that will provide the decision point to decommission the observatory,” says space scientist John Mathews of Pennsylvania State University in State College. 

The surface of the dish was largely unscathed, and the observatory’s most vulnerable component, the instrument platform suspended high above the dish by cables strung from three towers, each more than 80 meters tall, was still in place and seemed undamaged, says Schmelz. She is based at the Columbia, Maryland, headquarters of one of Arecibo’s operators, the Universities Space Research Association, and spoke with staff in Puerto Rico who first used a ham radio and then a single working satellite phone. But the roofs on some observatory buildings were blown off, the sinkhole under the dish was flooded, and other equipment was damaged by rain and fallen trees. Most significantly, a large portion of a 29-meter-long antenna—the 430-megahertz line feed used for studying the upper atmosphere—appears to have broken off and fallen from the platform into the dish. Mathews estimates a bill of several million dollars to replace the line feed alone. 

The rest of Puerto Rico has fared worse. Winds and widespread flooding destroyed 80% of homes and other buildings in some areas and took a similar toll on the island’s agriculture. The electricity grid was destroyed—and may not be restored for months—and almost all cellphone towers were downed. The Guajataca Dam, which impounds a 4-kilometer-long lake, was declared unsafe, prompting the evacuation of thousands of people. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is now flying in supplies, but with limited food, water, and infrastructure the situation is looking increasingly dire. 

For days after the hurricane, the staff at Arecibo were cut off with no communications and access roads blocked by fallen trees. Amateur shortwave radio enthusiasts helped restore contact. By early this week, roads had been cleared but fuel was scarce. Some staff, whose homes had been destroyed, were moving to the observatory for shelter. A few were still unaccounted for. FEMA was due to take over some of the visitors’ quarters to set up a relief center for the surrounding area. 

Storm damage is not the only threat to Arecibo’s future. Because of the need to build and operate newer telescopes, NSF is rethinking its support of older facilities such as Arecibo. Following a lengthy evaluation process, NSF was close to deciding Arecibo’s fate when Maria hit. The agency will now face a hefty repair bill on top of the $8.3 million it spends each year for normal operations. (NASA provides an additional $3.6 million.) “NSF has to look for the least painful thing to cut,” says Herbert Carlson, a space scientist at Utah State University in Logan who uses Arecibo to study the ionosphere. The cost of Arecibo’s repair “could be portrayed as the last straw.”

Opened in 1963, Arecibo is a multipurpose facility that can function as a passive radio telescope for astronomy: It was used in the Nobel Prize–winning discovery of the first binary pulsar in 1974. It can also work as a radar, sending out beams of radio waves and detecting the echoes from plasma in the upper atmosphere as well as from planets and near-Earth asteroids. Until the completion of a Chinese telescope last year, it reigned as the world’s largest single radio dish.

Although Arecibo still makes a vital contribution in some fields, it has been eclipsed by new facilities in others. In assessments dating back to 2006, advisers have told NSF it needs to scale back its investment to pay for newer facilities such as the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawaii and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in Chile. According to a recent facilities review, NSF needs to divest from as many as 10 telescopes to make savings of $40 million annually. The agency would prefer to maintain Arecibo as a scientific facility but with much reduced funding from NSF, ramping down to $2 million a year over 5 years. But that scenario “is only viable if there are interested parties” able to cover the remaining costs of operation, says James Ulvestad, acting director for NSF’s math and physical sciences directorate. NSF has made a formal solicitation for partners, but Ulvestad declined to say whether any suitable bidders had come forward. 

Meanwhile, the cleanup and inspection continues at Arecibo, but the work will be slow as the island heals. “The ability to do a full inspection depends so much on the island infrastructure,” Ulvestad says. Operations would resume gradually. “Some observations will be possible before others,” Ulvestad concedes. The bigger uncertainty is Arecibo’s future. Staff are working flat out in the hope that a hiatus for the venerable telescope doesn’t become permanent.

*Correction: 27 September, 10 a.m.: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that using Arecibo to bounce radar off of other planets requires large amounts of power from the grid, more than can be supplied by generators. In fact, the observations are powered by generators.