If an asteroid is on a collision course for Earth, Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory’s radio telescope is crucial for detecting it.
Arecibo, Puerto Rico, USA, 12 December 2016: Information sign at Arecibo Observatory

James Bond fans may feel a sense of déjà vu upon arrival at the Arecibo Observatory, deep in the heart of karst country in northwest Puerto Rico. Covering a sixth of the island, this dramatic mountain landscape is pocked with great sinkholes, riddled with caverns, and scythed by plunging canyons framed by great free-standing cone-shaped formations resembling a scene from Hollywood fiction. Called mogotes, these hummocks are the remnant of a great limestone plateau pushed up from the sea in the Jurassic era about 160 million years ago and since eroded into surreal contours by acidic water (created when rainfall reacts with calcium carbonate to form carbonic acid). Over eons, the porous limestone has been gnawed like Swiss cheese into great underground chambers and scalloped into massive hollows (cenotes), each as rotund as a gargantuan chamberpot.

The observatory began life in 1960 as a Department of Defense anti-ballistic missile (ABM) facility as part of Project Defender, the first effort to build an umbrella against nuclear attack by the Soviets.

Suspended within the largest and most perfectly spherical of the cavities in karst country is the 1,000-foot wide dish of the Arecibo Observatory. For more than 50 years, from its completion in 1963 until July 2016 when China’s similar, yet much bigger, 500-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope was completed, Arecibo’s 18-acre concave reflector (equivalent to almost 24 football fields) was the world’s largest curved focusing antenna and single-dish telescope… and thereby its most sensitive and powerful radio receiver.

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It’s a short but steep uphill walk from the parking lot to the Angel Ramos Foundation Visitor Center, where two levels of interactive exhibits, audiovisual displays and informative panels introduce visitors to basic astronomy, atmospheric science and to the operation of this iconic and awesomely powerful radio telescope. To the rear, a door opens to an observation platform that allows you to peer, jaw agape, into the bowl.

The experience is well worth the convoluted mountain drive and the price of admission.

Sensitive enough, too, to detect a steel golf ball on the Moon (should there be one) or to eavesdrop on a cellular phone conversation at the distance of Venus (should that ever happen).

First-time visitors could be forgiven for thinking they’ve stumbled upon some nefarious villain’s mad creation from a James Bond movie-set hidden away in the tropical jungle. Your “Hey, I know this place!” moment is because it featured as the climactic backdrop for 007 (alias Pierce Brosnan) to hold us on the edge of our seats as he fights for his life while dangling above the dish, hidden beneath an artificial lake in Cuba, in the movie GoldenEye (1995). In this irresistibly clichéd flick, the secret antenna is used to control the titular GoldenEye satellites with which the evildoer in question, the Janus Syndicate, intends to destroy London with a nuclear space weapon. (Another reason to watch GoldenEye is the titillating sex scene when 007’s maniacal femme fatale nemesis, the sadomasochistic erotophonophile vamp assassin Xenia Onatopp, tries to kill him in the sauna by crushing him to death with her thighs while they’re in coitus. But I digress.)

arecibo observatory

Although many scenes in the movie were filmed on site, the suspenseful hand-to-hand fight above the dish was shot in a studio lot in Hertfordshire, England, using a green-screen background, to which the Arecibo dish and mountain setting were digitally added. And the shots of Bond and “Bond girl” Natalya sliding down the steep-sided dish were filmed using a huge 1:20 scale concrete model. The real dish is made of almost 40,000 perforated aluminum panels supported by a network of cables spun like a spider’s web across the underlying 536-foot-deep sinkhole.

Hovering eerily 450 feet above the dish is a 900-ton triangular cradle held taut by cables strung from three reinforced concrete towers. Underneath the platform, a 328-foot-long, bow-shaped azimuth revolves on a circular track. The curved underside of the azimuth in turn forms a track for a “Gregorian dome” (added in 1997, and hence missing in GoldenEye) containing two sub-reflectors and equipment that focus radio emissions to points in space, while receiving incoming radio waves are focused on moveable antenna and gathered by super-sensitive radio receivers immersed in liquid helium. Hurricane Maria, which ravaged Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, broke the 96-foot “line feed” antenna off the azimuth, sending it plunging through the dish below like a giant spear.

A total of 26 electric motors drive the azimuth, dome and carriage housing to any position with millimeter precision. Thus, the rig can be pointed in any direction, making it possible to probe quasars, pulsars and other strange celestial objects in even the minutest part of the protean sky, from the earth’s outer atmosphere to the very outer limits of the known universe some 14 billion light years away. Sensitive enough, too, to detect a steel golf ball on the Moon (should there be one) or to eavesdrop on a cellular phone conversation at the distance of Venus (should that ever happen).

Hurricane Maria, which ravaged Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, broke the 96-foot “line feed” antenna off the azimuth, sending it plunging through the dish below like a giant spear.

The observatory’s accomplishments are mind-boggling! Discovery of the first binary pulsar, for which American astronomers Russell Hulse and Joseph H. Taylor, Jr., won the Nobel Prize for Physics… The first detailed maps of the distribution of the galaxies throughout the universe… The first extrasolar planets and the first organic molecules outside our galaxy… Plus, the first-ever directly imaged asteroid… In fact, if an asteroid is on a collision course for Earth, Arecibo’s radio telescope is crucial for detecting it. Arecibo even helped NASA select the Apollo lunar landing sites, as well as landing sites for the Viking missions to Mars.

The observatory began life in 1960 as a Department of Defense anti-ballistic missile (ABM) facility as part of Project Defender, the first effort to build an umbrella against nuclear attack by the Soviets. When completed in 1963 as the Arecibo Ionospheric Observatory, it cost $9.3 million (a reasonable sum considering the scientific benefit ever since). In 1969, it passed to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and was operated until 2011 in partnership with Cornell University under the formal name —which it retains— as the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC). But even the whiz scientists who work here affectionately call it the Arecibo Observatory.

Arecibo even helped NASA select the Apollo lunar landing sites, as well as landing sites for the Viking missions to Mars.

As the formal name suggests, Arecibo is a heavyweight in ionospheric research, from a few kilometers to several thousand kilometers distance, where the Earth’s upper atmosphere smoothly connects with interplanetary space. Its transmissions energize electrons in the Earth’s shroud of air and produce plasma physics interactions that are then scrutinized for elusive elements.

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Although it remains a facility of the NSF, since 2018 the observatory has been operated by the University of Central Florida, with assistance from Puerto Rico’s Universidad Metropolitano and Yang Enterprises. Since 2008, it has even been listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

Now cue the Twilight Zone theme song, please!

…those of you who don’t care for James Bond but who saw the 1997 movie Contact —not to mention Species (1995), the creepy sci-fi movie starring Ben Kingsley, Forest Whitaker, and Natasha Henstrich— are having your own “ah-ahhh!” moment.

Arecibo is also home base for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). It scans the skies on a 24-hour basis for transmissions from intelligent civilizations elsewhere in our galaxy. (Given that there are some two trillion galaxies in the Universe, you’d expect there to be one or two E.T.s cruising around in their UFOs.) In 1974, it transmitted the ‘Arecibo Message’ toward the globular cluster Messier 13, about 25,000 light-years away, in an attempt to communicate with potential extraterrestrial life. Not that we’ll be around to receive a reply, which wouldn’t arrive back at Earth for another 50,000 years.

arecibo observatory
Large radio telescope dish in Arecibo national observatory

At which point in this story, those of you who don’t care for James Bond but who saw the 1997 movie Contact —not to mention Species (1995), the creepy sci-fi movie starring Ben Kingsley, Forest Whitaker, and Natasha Henstrich— are having your own “ah-ahhh!” moment. Helping make Arecibo arguably the world’s most recognizable astronomical facility, in Contact Jodie Foster (as radio astronomer Dr. Ellie Arroway) uses the facility to try to communicate with intelligent extraterrestrials after receiving radio signals transmitted by an alien intelligence, providing plans for a mysterious machine that will transport a single human for a one-on-one with the aliens.
Contact was based on the eponymous novel by Carl Sagan, who also quipped the most deliciously memorable line used in the movie: A young Ellie, fascinated by the stars, asks her dad if there are humans on other planets. He replies: “If we’re alone in the Universe, it sure seems like an awful waste of space.” Or as Pierce Brosnan said as James Bond: “The world is not enough.”

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