Tanzina: I'm Tanzina Vega, and you're listening to The Takeaway. Take a listen to this, the sound of a tragic cosmic ending.
Tanzina: That's the sound of the iconic telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico collapsing to the ground last week, Carlos Perez filmed the collapse from the observatory's control room. The collapse didn't come as a surprise. Two of the cables supporting the telescope broke earlier this year, prompting the National Science Foundation to call for decommissioning the 900-ton instrument.
Luckily, there were no deaths or injuries but many who were inspired by the telescope are mourning a major loss for the scientific community in Puerto Rico, and around the world. Joining me now is Abel Méndez, associate professor of physics and astrobiology at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo. Abel has done research using the telescope at the Arecibo Observatory for the past decade, Abel, welcome to the show.
Abel: Hello, Tanzina.
Tanzina: My family is partly from Barceloneta, which is not far from Arecibo, this observatory has been such an iconic part of Puerto Rico for so long. When you heard about the final collapse. What did it mean for you?
Abel: The collapse was about 7:55 AM local time in Puerto Rico. I just got the message from a colleague through phone about 8:00 AM just five minutes after the collapse. Then suddenly, I got a request for interviews from everywhere, and I have to decline them. I was struggling with the moment and it was hard for me to speak anywhere. Even listening to the sound of the collapse, as you put at the beginning, is hard.
Tanzina: You've worked with this observatory for so many years. Tell me a little bit about the work and the importance of the telescope?
Abel: Yes, I studied the possibility of life elsewhere beyond Earth, and I use the observatory to study stars with known potentially habitable planets. I am not looking with the observatory for any signs of life, but I'm using to study stars which are known to have these planets. My last time that I used the observatory was about August 6th, that was a Thursday, and the first cable failure was on August 10th. At that moment, I was not that concerned, because it was just one cable and the other cables were supposed to withstand the weight. Then on November 6th, there was a second cable. I knew at that moment that this is not going good.
Tanzina: You visited the telescope for the first time when you were just 12 years old, and then you ended up working there. You said this was heartbreaking for you.
Abel: Definitely. The observatory has been an inspiration for many students. When I visit the observatory, I was overwhelmed with the magnitude of the place. No picture gives justice for the observatory, you have to be there and see how each is everything, the scale. For me, I loved astronomy and going to that place and going to the library and look at so much astronomy, recent astronomy, recent research, that was amazing. That was an inspiration. I glad and lucky that eventually, I was able to use the observatory by my own
Tanzina: Abel what happened to the observatory?
Abel: We know that the first failure of the cable, it was an auxiliary cable, and that cable failed probably because a problem during manufacturing. There's already an investigation, but the second cable was a main supporting cable, and that broke. We don't know yet what was the cause of that because that was supposed to withstand. Maybe this was celebrated in 2017 by Hurricane Maria. We have also earthquakes this year in January, but probably Maria was much stronger, was the effect. All this, and we were waiting for the National Science Foundation, which is the federal agency that manages observatory, just to allow the repairs, but they were very cautious that we had to go very slowly because life are at stake. We were trying to repair, probably that was too slow.
Tanzina: What were some of the telescope's key achievements for those who aren't as familiar with it?
Abel: The Arecibo observatory is no longer the biggest radio telescope as everybody know because there's a bigger one in China. However, most radio telescope can only receive radio signals. Arecibo can also transmit as radar too. That's why in 1974, it was able to transmit a message to the stars, what is famously known as the Arecibo message. That's something that only radar types a radio telescope can do.
The Arecibo is still the best instrument or was the best instrument in the world to study the properties of trajectory of any potentially asteroid. That's why radar is important. There are many achievements also and one that is related to my work. In 1992, it detected the first exoplanet, the first planets around other stars.
Tanzina: Abel, what is going to happen, what's the future of the Arecibo Observatory right now? I know that there was a Twitter account that was trying to get people to save it. This feels like it's also a loss for the broader scientific community.
Abel: Yes, before the collapse, we were trying to save the observatory and to be fit on time, but it took too long. Now we focus on rebuilding the observatory, so that's a big possibility. We know it will take time, at least the facilities around the observatory will be useful. They have other instruments, scientific instruments like LIDAR to study the atmospheres, they have a small dish, probably a 12-meter radio telescope, and they have a visitor center.
Those areas will still be operational, and the scientists there could do some work, but they will have the big instrument. We are planning, and we are the scientific community and the users of the Arecibo Observatory are trying to propose a new telescope that might cost about $300 to $400 million.
Tanzina: The funding for that would come from the National Science Foundation or from Puerto Rico or from where? How would it work?
Abel: National Science Foundation was supporting the observatory, but since 2006, it started to reduce the funding for the observatory. We don't know now if NSF will be willing to take the observatory since that record. It could be NSF, it could be any other federal agency that we will go directly to the Congress when we have all the plans, and then try to support the Congress, and from there, they will decide which will be the best agency to continue operating the observatory. I know Puerto Rico will also get involved, but most of the funding will be federal funding.
Tanzina: Are you optimistic with the Joe Biden administration that that federal funding will happen?
Abel: Oh, definitely. I think this administration will do a good job of supporting science everywhere.
Tanzina: Abel Méndez is an associate professor of physics and astrobiology at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo. Thanks so much for being with us.
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