Giant radio telescope lends a hand in Puerto Rico relief

Source: Science Magazine

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.