The National Science Foundation announced that it will decommission and demolish the iconic Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. This comes after two cables suspending the telescope's 900-ton receiver platform above its massive dish broke while others are weakening. Completed in 1963, the Arecibo Observatory has been a key instrument in the development of radio astronomy. It's also where in 1974 my friend Frank Drake, SETI pioneer and telescope director at the time, transmitted an encoded message for any extraterrestrials who may be listening. Over at National Geographic, Frank's daughter, esteemed science writer Nadia Drake, has been covering the story. Here is Nadia's piece about today's sad news and the following is from her feature last week in National Geographic:
Discoveries from Arecibo include the 1974 detection of a pair of whirling pulsars that are emitting gravitational waves—earning the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics—and the first confirmed planets spotted orbiting a star other than the sun in 1992. Scientists at Arecibo also worked out Mercury's rotation rate, spotted a repeating fast radio burst, and conducted numerous searches for communicative extraterrestrial civilizations—an endeavor popularized by Carl Sagan's novel Contact that was later made into a movie of the same name.
In addition to observing the heavens and collecting radio waves, Arecibo is also an extremely powerful radar. Scientists use this capability to characterize asteroids that cross Earth's orbit, calculating their positions with extreme precision to figure out how to avoid future collisions. And in 1974, Dad used it to send an interstellar message to a clump of stars called the Great Cluster in the Hercules constellation. In it, he encoded information about humans, Earth, the solar system, and Arecibo, and broadcast it during a celebration of upgrades to the telescope.
"It does atmospheric science, it does solar system science, it does astronomy, it does astrophysics," Rivera-Valentín says. "It's important for science, and for the entire world."
image: University of Central Florida