From tracking asteroids to discovering the first-ever “exoplanets,” to broadcasting the infamous Arecibo message and even hosting the Planetary Habitability Laboratory, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico has played a long and varied role in understanding the universe.
The observatory’s telescope collapsed on December 1, 2020 due to multiple hurricanes and other natural disasters hitting Puerto Rico. The collapse also damaged the observatory’s learning center.
Why is this place so important? How has it helped us understand the universe?
The observatory was originally built between 1960 and 1963 by the U.S. Department of Defense. It was built for two purposes. The first was to study the Earth’s ionosphere, which is the ionized part of Earth’s upper atmosphere, as part of the Advanced Research Projects Agency’s missile defense program. The observatory was also built to serve as a radio telescope to detect radio emissions from objects in the night sky.
At that time it was the largest single-unit telescope on Earth until 2016, when the 500 meter Aperture Spherical Telescope’s observations began in China.
The Arecibo Observatory managed to produce detailed maps of Venus and Mercury. It helped researchers discover that Mercury spent over 59 days orbiting around the Sun, instead of the previously assumed 88 days, meaning the planet did not always show the same face to the Sun.
In 1974, two major achievements were noted by the Arecibo Observatory. The first was the transmission of the “Arecibo Message” to the Messier 13 (M13) cluster, and the second the discovery of the first binary pulsars.
These discoveries have contributed to our understanding of the Solar System and how it works, expanding our knowledge about the planets in it, along with that of other stars.
Decades later in 1992, it was the first telescope to detect the first exoplanets beyond our Solar System, known as PSR B1257+12 b and PSR B1257+12 c.
The Arecibo Observatory hosted the Planetary Habitability Laboratory, and it kept a constant list of updates on their website regarding potentially habitable worlds that were located in their respective parent star’s habitable zone. The habitable zone is a region in a star system that is defined as being neither too hot nor too cold, but just right to sustain liquid water on the surface.
In addition to scientific contributions, the Arecibo Observatory provided a place for culture and learning. It counted on different programs in the educational fields and the scientific ones as well, both for high school students and undergraduates.
The observatory was also a place for all those people who wish to conduct their own research from the comfort of their own homes, most notably with the SETI@Home program to help search for extraterrestrial signals.
Due to Hurricane María, the telescope suffered severe damage. With earthquakes following in early 2020, the telescope’s structure became weaker, until it finally came crashing down.
After this loss, the global scientific community has called for the reconstruction of the Arecibo Observatory. Proposals for the Next Generation Arecibo Observatory including a wide variety of upgrades, including a larger dish area, and increasing the educational programs being offered by the visitor center. Further details can be viewed here.