1 December 2020 was a dark day for Puerto Rico and the global astronomy community. The iconic Arecibo Observatory collapsed, with the radio telescope’s 900-tonne suspended platform crashing into the 305 m dish below. Warning signs had been there in the preceding months, but that did little to soften the shock felt by the astronomy community.
In this episode of the Physics World Stories podcast, Andrew Glester speaks with astronomers about the impact of this dramatic event. Abel Méndez, a planetary astrobiologist at the University of Puerto Rico, explains why the observatory was a beacon for Puerto Rican scientists and engineers. Mourning continues but Méndez and colleagues have already submitted a white paper to the National Science Foundation with plans for a new telescope array on the same site.
Constructed in the 1960s with US funding, Arecibo was originally used for military purposes. Its powerful radar was bounced off the ionosphere to better understand the nature of the Earth’s upper atmosphere and to look for signs of incoming Soviet missiles. Seth Shostack, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, talks to Glester about Arecibo’s origins and how scientists soon saw the potential for bouncing Arecibo’s radar off astronomical objects such as asteroids.
Arecibo was the world’s largest radio dish until it was surpassed in 2016 by China’s FAST telescope. Arecibo’s size and tropical setting captured the public imagination and the observatory appeared in the films GoldenEye and Contact – the adaptation of the Carl Sagan novel. Contact’s lead protagonist is Ellie Arroway (played by Jodie Foster), partly based on SETI scientist Jill Tarter. Tarter joins the podcast recounting her experiences advising Jodie Foster on the character and role.