Arecibo Observatory seeks upgrades to track asteroids, study space

By Paul Brinkmann
Anne Virkki, an astronomer at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, studies near-earth asteroids that pose a threat to humanity. Photo by Paul Brinkmann/UPI
1 of 6 | Anne Virkki, an astronomer at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, studies near-earth asteroids that pose a threat to humanity. Photo by Paul Brinkmann/UPI

ARECIBO, Puerto Rico, Dec. 3 (UPI) -- Managers of the renown Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico say they have plans for multimillion-dollar upgrades in instruments, software and facilities to keep it at the forefront of research in radio astronomy, asteroids and other planetary bodies.

The observatory is not running at full capacity because of age, years of tightening budgets and lingering damage from Hurricane Maria in 2017. Scientists who work there said the telescope still is a powerful tool, but it could provide more accurate radio signal data with restoration and upgrading.


A new more reliable power source and realignment of Arecibo's dish are the two most important fixes being planned. Having reliable power would mean less down time and more discoveries, while the dish realignment would provide more accurate data and images of space objects.

Both fixes are part of a $14.3 million federal plan to revitalize the outpost in the island's rural interior.


Asteroid hunt

A better power source and more accurate telescope would help astronomer Anne Virkki seek out asteroids that could collide with Earth some day.

She will be involved in watching the Didymos asteroid in 2022, when NASA's DART mission will try to hit the asteroid's small moon with a spacecraft and see how that changes its course.

But damage and neglect at Arecibo have had a real impact on the ability to provide accurate images, Virkki told UPI.

"Right now, we're running our asteroid observations at one-third of the power that we could do optimally, and the misalignment of the dish decreases the quality by another 50 percent," Virkki said.

"So, after all the improvements have been finished, including new generators and a dish realignment, our data will be up to six times better and we can successfully observe more asteroids," she said.

This year, Virkki said, Arecibo was able to take quality images of 30 asteroids, but that could be increased to 50 asteroids with better equipment. When it comes to simply observing the presence of asteroids, Arecibo can handle about 125 per year, and would be able to observe 20 or 30 more each year with better equipment.


Arecibo's powerful radar transmitter was closed for four months after Hurricane Maria, but the observatory demonstrated its scientific muscle immediately after it came back online. The facility provided the highest-resolution images to date of near-Earth asteroid Phaethon during a close approach to Earth.

Images showed a tumbling, rocky shaped rough sphere. NASA said Phaethon is the second largest near-Earth asteroid classified as potentially hazardous, meaning its orbit is close enough to strike the planet at some point.

Thanks to Arecibo, scientists now have more data on the asteroid, enabling better predictions about its future path.

Pulsars and plasma

Most of the search for extraterrestrial life occurs at places like the SETI Institute in California or Cornell University in upstate New York. Astronomers there use radio signal data from telescopes like Arecibo in a hunt for signals that could signify technology on other planets.

But those such as Anish Roshi, Arecibo's chief scientist for radio astronomy, prefer to work on-site to participate fully in settings of the instruments on the telescope when conducting research. He's preparing a paper now on the properties of interstellar gas ionized by stars, or plasma.

"Upgrades to the Arecibo telescope are critical to keep the national facility in the forefront of research in radio astronomy while maintaining its dominance in radar studies of near-Earth asteroids, planets and satellites," Roshi said.


Arecibo has several instruments that receive radio waves from space for different scientific disciplines. Roshi said a new planned instrument funded in the federal upgrade plan, a 40-beam cryogenic phased array feed, would provide unmatched sensitivity that would assist his research. It's expected to be in operation in the next couple of years.

The new instrument also would be used to get better information about star clusters that were previously difficult to study, and allow faster discovery of pulsars. NASA has found over 2,000 pulsars but continues to find more.

Earth's outer atmosphere

The original science goal of the observatory was to study the ionosphere, or the very outer edge of earth's atmosphere that is affected by solar wind, or plasma.

Today Michael Sulzer, senior observatory scientist at Arecibo, still studies the ionosphere. He is also looking forward to more reliable power generation and a more accurate telescope once it is realigned.

His calculations help to understand how the atmosphere distorts a signal from space, for example. He's also among the many scientists studying the impact of the sun's cycles on our atmosphere.

"We would like to get more power particularly, but we don't have enough generators," said Sulzer, who has worked at Arecibo since 1979.


Getting a signal

On a recent autumn afternoon at Arecibo, Virkki was preparing to study a recently discovered asteroid, known as 2019 UM12. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said Arecibo would observe the space rock two days later.

The asteroid's closest approach to earth in mid-November was just a little more than the normal distance of the moon. With a diameter of over 100 feet, it's not a planet killer, but it could cause a lot of damage if it hit a populated area.

In comparison, the Chelyabinsk meteor that caused an airburst and shock wave over Russia in 2013 was about 66 feet across.

"We're looking for more refined information about the orbit, its size, how often it comes close to earth, etc.," Virkki said.

But the observation hinged entirely on whether the observatory's generators and machinery would perform.

"It takes a lot of power to generate the signal that we send toward the asteroid and to get a signal back," Virkki said.

Latest Headlines