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An Arecibo Observatory staffer greets a U.S. Coast Guard pilot ferrying food and water for delivery to nearby communities.


Giant radio telescope lends a hand in Puerto Rico relief

When Angel Vazquez emerged from his home on 21 September after Hurricane Maria had raged through the night, he saw a scene of utter devastation now familiar to all in Puerto Rico. Homes and buildings were damaged; trees and utility poles were down. Power, sanitation, and all communications were out, he soon discovered. Neighbors were already trying to clear the roads with chainsaws and machetes, but for Vazquez the most pressing need was to check on the Arecibo Observatory, the gargantuan radio telescope built into a depression in the island’s karst hills.

Vazquez, head of telescope operations at the facility, got in his car and crept behind a bulldozer that was pushing through debris up the road to the observatory. The normally 20-minute journey took almost 2 hours. Once there, “I got a good surprise,” he says. The couple of dozen staff on site were all safe, and damage to the 54-year-old observatory was relatively slight—it was built with Cold War solidity partly for military research.

But more than a month later, Arecibo is still waiting to resume normal operations. In the meantime, the telescope and its infrastructure have become the unlikely base for an ongoing relief effort for its staff and nearby communities. And in a painful irony, while the 110 employees put their own lives back together, the future of their observatory is in question. The National Science Foundation (NSF), which supplies most of Arecibo’s funding, wants to substantially scale down its contributions and has been looking for other backers. This week, the National Science Board, which oversees NSF, is discussing plans for the observatory’s future.

Once Vazquez had sized up the damage at the observatory, he headed back down the hill with dozens of phone numbers and messages for staff members’ families in the continental United States. By fortunate circumstance, Vazquez is a ham radio enthusiast; he had a generator and his antenna survived the storm. Soon he was passing on the numbers and messages to ham operators on the mainland, some of them former Arecibo staff, who made phone calls to anxious families and relayed messages back through Vazquez. He says that the makeshift communications system conveyed about 250 messages in the following days, in addition to reporting the status of the observatory to the institutions that manage it.

Many local staff turned up for work the following day, 22 September, but it took more than a week for observatory officials to make sure all their employees were safe. Some had been trapped in villages entirely cut off by landslides, downed power lines, and toppled cell towers. “We had a phone tree, but no phones,” Deputy Director Joan Schmelz says.

As soon as the safety of the laboratory was assured, Arecibo Director Francisco Cordova contacted the government’s center of emergency operations in San Juan to offer its facilities, including a pumped well, three 1-megawatt diesel generators, storage space, and a helipad. Soon federal relief agencies and the U.S. military were dropping off food and bottled water, which observatory staff delivered to surrounding communities. Arecibo has also been supplying tens of thousands of liters of water a day to local people who come to fill up containers. “We’re still doing this. The relief effort has been continuous,” Vazquez says.

Meanwhile, the observatory itself has been inching back to life. A rudimentary internet connection was restored in late October, taking advantage of public Wi-Fi services—normally the bane of radio telescopes. “Usually I have to police these providers because of frequency interference. Now I had to go to them for help,” Vazquez says.

But “the biggest obstacle to observations” is lack of power, says Nicholas White, senior vice president for science at the Universities Space Research Association in Columbia, Maryland, which helps manage Arecibo. Restoration of grid power may be weeks away. And though the observatory’s generators can support full operation, Schmelz says, “Diesel is in great demand on the island,” and airports and hospitals have priority. As it is, the observatory is burning 3000 liters of diesel a day simply to keep some equipment running, including the vital hydrogen maser frequency standard—recalibrating it after a shutdown could take a month, according to Schmelz.

Researchers have been operating the telescope in a low-power mode called “drift scan,” in which it is left pointing in one direction, allowing the sky to drift past as Earth rotates. But turning on any of the telescope’s radars to study planets and Earth’s upper atmosphere, for example, is ruled out because it would double diesel consumption. Over the past week, with the diesel supply improving, staff have been conducting pointing checks—moving the 900-ton platform that steers the telescope’s focus—in the expectation that enough fuel will soon be available for full operation.

While they cope with the chaos around them, staff are waiting anxiously to hear NSF’s decision on their fate. If no other organization offers to fill the funding gap, prospects look bleak. “Everyone would like to get past this whole process,” White says. “The uncertainty has gone on for a long time.” 

*Update, 8 November, 4:35 p.m.: This story has been updated to clarify a quote from Joan Schmelz.