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Iconic space observatory in Puerto Rico recovers after Hurricane Maria

By
Paul Brinkmann
The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico includes the world’s most powerful radar telescope, which is undergoing millions of dollars of reconstruction after Hurricane Maria struck the island in 2017. Photo by Paul Brinkmann/UPI
The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico includes the world’s most powerful radar telescope, which is undergoing millions of dollars of reconstruction after Hurricane Maria struck the island in 2017. Photo by Paul Brinkmann/UPI

ARECIBO, Puerto Rico, Nov. 29 (UPI) -- The world's most powerful radio space telescope, which was damaged by Hurricane Maria two years ago, is being repaired slowly under new management determined to maintain it as a hub of interstellar discovery.

The iconic Arecibo Observatory, famous for its appearance in movies such as 1995's GoldenEye and Species, and 1997's Contact, has brought two scientists Nobel Prizes and achieved worldwide acclaim for its research efforts.

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For decades, Arecibo has had a key role in detecting dangerous near-Earth asteroids that could destroy civilization should they hit the planet, and NASA awarded the facility $19 million for that program in August.

"We have a plan to revive Arecibo, and it includes building our science team, providing better access for visitors and seeking a new, more reliable power source for the region and for the observatory," said Ramon Lugo, director at the University of Central Florida's space institute in Orlando. The university is the new manager.

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"People have argued that a combination of smaller telescopes could replace Arecibo, but the government would have to restore this site to its original condition if we left it, and we would lose the talent and the great facilities we already have here," Lugo said.

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The site is owned by the National Science Foundation, which has had flat budgets for the past 10 years. The agency decided after the hurricane not to shutter Arecibo, but to pass facility management on to a group led by the University of Central Florida. The new leaders has received grants from the science organization and NASA for five years as it tries to develop new income from commercial enterprise and tourists.

Nestled in the hilly Puerto Rican interior, Arecibo is reachable only by helicopter or a long, twisty country road. About 120 people work at the observatory, 20 of whom are resident scientists. A small team of scientists and staff rode out Maria there.

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Millions in damage

The facility suffered about $4 million to $8 million in damage when Maria strafed the island in September 2017. Roofs and windows were wrecked on the observatory's buildings, but the dish and telescope remained mostly intact. A large antenna on the telescope broke off in the storm, and that has hampered work on scanning the atmosphere.

Trees and storm debris took weeks to clean up, and generators that were intended for sporadic use with the telescope were damaged by running 24 hours a day for four months.

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When the university's staff walked the property for the first time, members found maintenance records on index cards and no running inventory in the warehouse, Lugo said.

"Scientists aren't trained to manage programs or facilities in general. We've brought in some new staff as needed," he said.

Lugo is the former director of NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. As a child in Puerto Rico, he visited the observatory. He visited again decades later representing NASA -- before Maria hit.

"I kind of noticed that, while it was still a great place, it was suffering from a lack of enthusiasm," Lugo said. "At that point, I thought that if I ever had the chance to do something about it, I would."

The university's partners at Arecibo are Puerto Rico's Ana G. Mendez University System, which runs the visitor center, and Yang Enterprises, an engineering consulting firm based in an Orlando suburb.

Suspended by cables

The observatory came through Maria surprisingly intact, considering it is basically a six-story structure suspended by cables hanging from three skyscraper-like concrete towers.

Arecibo was consumed by rescue and cleanup efforts immediately after the storm. Just clearing the country roads around it took weeks. Crews removed debris from the observatory's dish, and the on-site maintenance staff made small repairs to buildings.

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The two biggest remaining repairs require replacing a massive cable that helps suspend the telescope above the reflector dish and a realignment of some 39,000 panels that comprise the dish. Those two repairs could cost up to $4 million, according to Arecibo engineers.

After Maria, the National Science Foundation awarded two grants of more than $14 million to repair and upgrade the facility. But Arecibo's annual funding from the agency has been slashed. It used to provide the majority of Arecibo's $12 million budget, but federal strategy in 2012 was to back away from funding older telescopes.

"It's a tough environment," Lugo said. "I don't think there's any maintenance issue that I would characterize as an immediate risk or as unsafe, but we still need to replace that cable, especially."

The observatory reopened for business four months after Maria. Besides asteroid detection, other research at Arecibo includes the study of interstellar gases and the Earth's ionosphere or upper atmosphere.

Tourism eyed

Lugo said he'd like to tap into Puerto Rico's tourism economy, which has boomed with more cruise ship traffic, for revenue. But the staff at Arecibo has noted that visitors are almost entirely centered on the island's capital and main port, San Juan. The observatory is about 60 miles from the capital, and the last 15 miles are quite a journey.

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Lugo also is talking to potential partners for a large solar farm in Puerto Rico's interior, which would could provide electricity should future hurricanes strike.

Completed in 1963, the observatory owns more than 100 acres. The facility itself covers 18 acres, with a curved reflector dish the area of about 20 football fields. It was built in Puerto Rico because scientists in the 1950s found a sinkhole valley that was shaped perfectly to support the massive dish.

One of the most complicated problems caused by Maria, and from years of declining budgets, is the need to align the dish's panels. Fixing the panels also is funded by Maria recovery grants.

The aluminum panels are rectangles, about 1 by 2 meters. Perforations allow rain to pass through, but the aluminum reflects radio waves from space to the telescope hanging above.

"Each panel needs to be aligned, down to the millimeter, and a few need to be replaced," said Luis Quintero, an engineer who heads up the electronics department at the observatory.

He said the panels are supposed to be aligned every 10 years, but the last scheduled maintenance didn't happen because of declining budgets and management decisions. Then Maria made the situation more pressing.

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Severe winds

Winds toppled equipment around the dish, along with a few trees that fell and damaged the panels, knocking them out of alignment.

Quintero found he might need to use older technology to fix the dish properly, namely film cameras. Almost 20 years ago, engineers used a film camera to capture high-resolution images of each panel, along with cables and bolts that are used to align them, he said.

"We only have digital cameras now, so we're studying how it was done to come up with a plan," he said. "There may be laser scanning that can accomplish this also."

Lugo imagines a bold future for University of Central Florida's astronomy programs, with Arecibo as a centerpiece.

"We're writing a lot of proposals to pay for the scientists, and we're building a team," he said. "We've hired an early career scientist to start building instrumentation so we can start leading a research mission for NASA."

Eventually he imagines a return of samples from Mars, or a flyby to a distant planet or asteroid. Having Arecibo in the university's portfolio is a big advantage in building such a team, he said.

"We're not there yet. I'm not satisfied with where we're at with Arecibo, but it's a very challenging budget profile," Lugo said. "Like I tell our people there, the key is to have a strategy, work hard and evaluate the strategy. We're on our way."

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