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Puerto Rican scientists mourn loss of Arecibo Observatory's iconic telescope

Arecibo Observatory's radio telescope's science platform illuminated at night.
Arecibo Observatory's radio telescope's science platform illuminated at night. (Image credit: Courtesy of the NAIC - Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF)

In a year full of terrible new sorrows and burdens, the collapse of Arecibo Observatory's iconic radio telescope feels like a particularly brutal loss to Puerto Ricans.

The 57-year-old telescope, a massive dish 1,000 feet (305 meters) across, has been an icon of science on the island, several Puerto Ricans told Space.com. The observatory's conferences have brought a wide variety of researchers to visit the island, field trips to its visitors' center have been a "rite of passage" for Puerto Rican children, and its local research programs have shown students that science is open to them. 

"Until very recently, it was the biggest radio telescope in the world, and that was always a point of pride for Puerto Rico," Emily Alicea-Muñoz, who grew up in Puerto Rico and trained as a radio astronomer before becoming a physics education researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told Space.com. "We may be a tiny little island in the middle of the Caribbean, but we can do big science."

Related: Losing Arecibo Observatory creates a hole that can't be filled

But on Dec. 1, the radio telescope's 900-ton hanging platform crashed down into the massive dish, destroying it. Scientists around the world mourned, as did everyday Puerto Ricans all across the island. "It's like losing an elderly relative," Alicea-Muñoz said. "It was there, it was a thing; maybe it was taken for granted that it would always exist."

Over the past two decades, the observatory and the island alike had weathered challenge after challenge. The facility survived an island-wide economic crisis and budget cuts that threatened to shutter the observatory. In 2017, Hurricane Maria battered the island, killing 3,000 people, and the telescope sustained miraculously minimal damage from the storm's gusts. The observatory and the island rang in the most recent new year to a series of earthquakes; shortly thereafter, the novel coronavirus pandemic took hold of the island and the world.

But for Arecibo Observatory, the worst was yet to come. 

The Arecibo Observatory Visitors' Center was mostly undamaged by the telescope's collapse, according to NSF officials. (Image credit: Courtesy of the NAIC - Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF)

First, one of the thick cables supporting the radio telescope's massive equipment platform slipped out of its socket in August. Just as engineers had prepared a plan to address the damage, a second supporting cable snapped on Nov. 9, leaving the observatory at the brink of collapse and with a decommission verdict from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), which owns the site. The platform fell on Dec. 1, shattering itself and swaths of the dish.

For Puerto Ricans, and Puerto Rican scientists in particular, it was a painful sight.

"I just can't help but question that lack of urgency [after the August failure], and it feels like a bigger theme that Puerto Ricans have experienced over and over, especially in the last three or four years," Mónica Feliú-Mójer, a neurobiologist and the director of communications and science outreach for the nonprofit organization Ciencia Puerto Rico, told Space.com.

"Our country is crumbling in front of our eyes," Feliú-Mójer said. "Puerto Ricans have been through one trauma after the other, especially since 2017. And so it hurts a little more, I think, because of that. It hurts a lot, but I think it hurts more because of the context in which this is happening."

Related: The Arecibo Observatory radio telescope in Puerto Rico has collapsed

Loss of an icon

Scientist after scientist used the word pride to describe Puerto Ricans' relationship with Arecibo Observatory as the foremost institution of research and education on the island.

"This is the only icon of science that we have in the island," Paola Figueroa-Delgado, a Ph.D. student in cell biology at Yale University who participated in a high-school research program at the observatory, told Space.com "Yes, we have research institutions and labs, but you recognize the observatory in a picture, you know that is in Arecibo and you have heard about it at some point in your lifetime."

Figueroa-Delgado is proof of Arecibo's role pointing Puerto Rican students toward careers in science. While her field of study is nothing related to the radio astronomy, atmospheric studies or planetary science that make up Arecibo Observatory's research legacy, it was through thinking about sustainability in space at the facility's high-school research program that she first encountered the idea of 3D-printed human organs.

"It always comes down to the opportunity of the observatory," Figueroa-Delgado said. "If I didn't have the opportunity, I really wouldn't be here, because it exposed me to not only engineering, astronomy and astrophysics, but it exposed me to my current field. It trained me to be a scientist, and to think that I could pretty much forge my own career toward science, and it valued my contributions."

Related: Arecibo isn't the first radio telescope to unexpectedly fail. Here's what we can learn from Green Bank's collapse.

The inspirational role of Arecibo Observatory has been particularly strong after the site's visitors' center opened in 1997; it hosts more than 100,000 tourists per year, according to the NSF.

With that investment came a suite of other educational and outreach programs to match. "My first research experience ever, not just in astronomy but ever, was in college and it was connected to the Arecibo telescope," Romy Rodríguez-Martínez, now pursuing a Ph.D. in astronomy at Ohio State University, told Space.com. "My first visit was related to that project, and so it has a special place in my heart for that reason; it was the first astronomy project I ever did."

And before the collapse, she treasured the possibility that after she earned her PhD, she could perhaps find a job at the observatory. "Obviously, now that possibility is completely off the table."

Working at Arecibo has been a longstanding dream for Puerto Ricans interested in astronomy, even long before the visitor's center energized its outreach efforts. Hector Arce, a radio astronomer at Yale University, grew up seeing the telescope's massive dish in a poster at his grandfather's house. Already interested in astronomy, he later saw the dish in person, and the hope of returning guided his decision to specialize in radio astronomy.

"I knew of the existence of the observatory and that astronomy could be a science you could pursue and maybe get hired at some point to work back in Puerto Rico," Arce told Space.com. "The fact that I knew that the Arecibo Observatory was there in Puerto Rico, and that if I continued to pursue a career in astronomy, that there could be a place for me to work back in Puerto Rico — that was always in my mind."

A troubled history

That hope faded in the mid-2000s, he said, when the NSF laid off a round of astronomers and first floated the idea of cutting funding to Arecibo Observatory in order to invest in new telescopes. Since then, he said, Puerto Ricans and observatory users alike have struggled to trust the NSF, regardless of how earnest the agency's intentions may have been and its continued funding of new research at Arecibo.

"It was always in the mind of people that the NSF didn't care much about the observatory," Arce said. "There was always a sense of insecurity … I think they failed in trying to convince the people that they were supporting the observatory."

And as it turns out, Puerto Ricans love the facility, despite its roots as a Department of Defense project of a federal government that has refused to grant the island statehood. "I think regardless of political affiliation or view in terms of the political status of the island, people are proud of the observatory being there," Arce said. "Yes, it is a U.S. installation, the government provided the money to build it and then to operate it, but many other people who have kept it alive have been Puerto Ricans."

Related: Terrifying footage shows collapse of Arecibo Observatory's massive radio telescope

Some Puerto Ricans see the telescope's collapse as a sign of the damage colonialism has done to the island, since the Puerto Rican government doesn't have authority over the observatory and islanders don't have voting representation in Congress, which allocates money to the NSF.

"There has been some mentions of the fact that the observatory didn't receive the necessary maintenance, maybe in part because it's just on a territory rather than a state," Saida Caballero-Nieves, an astronomer at the Florida Institute of Technology, told Space.com. "I really can't speak to how much truth there is in that. But really, the sentiment is that this brought pride to us, and seeing it fall apart like that really hurts."

Caballero-Nieves, who spent much of her childhood away from the island, remembers visiting the observatory just before high school and the fascination her father, a civil engineer, felt for the staggeringly large dish and the heavy platform suspended above.

"I feel like it's one of the modern seven wonders of the world," she said. "It doesn't matter how many times I went back, just seeing how big it is was really awe-inspiring." And then, of course, there was the science. "For a facility to still be scientifically relevant for almost six full decades is really, really impressive," she said.

And Puerto Ricans know exactly what they've lost with Arecibo.

Uncertainty and hope

Junellie Gonzalez-Quiles, now pursuing a Ph.D. in planetary science at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, is one of those students who first saw the observatory in high school through a research program hosted by the facility. She describes walking up the hill from the parking lot to the platform overlooking the radio dish and the impression it made on her at the time. "It was really eye-opening and impressive how big this telescope was," she said. "It hurts saying 'was.'"

She and others with similar stories have decided to turn that hurt into action, launching petitions to the White House to intervene on Arecibo Observatory's behalf. The first, posted on Nov. 21, called for a rescue attempt and a second, posted the day after the telescope's collapse, asked for federal support in building a new, equally sophisticated observatory on the site in honor of its standing in Puerto Rico.

"It's like a door of opportunities that we just saw shatter when the Arecibo Observatory collapsed," she said.

After the cable failures and later collapse, NSF officials have repeatedly emphasized their commitment to the larger observatory facility and to Puerto Rico itself, but it's unclear how likely that is to translate into a new cutting-edge telescope, as Gonzalez-Quiles and other Puerto Ricans hope.

Related: Losing Arecibo's giant dish leaves humans more vulnerable to space rocks, scientists say

A view of the science platform from the center of the iconic radio dish at Arecibo Observatory. (Image credit: Courtesy of the NAIC - Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF)

"Historically, in the colonial relationship that Puerto Rico has had with the United States, we don't have a lot of power, or at least we're told we don't have a lot of power to do anything," Feliú-Mójer said. There's a common narrative on the island, she added: "We need the United States, we're a small little island in the middle of the Caribbean, we don't have a lot of power, we're dispossessed, and if we don't have the United States, we are going to perish."

And while seeing Arecibo fall has underscored the pernicious effects of colonialism on the island, she said, she's greeted the response to the tragedy with optimism that Arecibo may one day be rebuilt.

"One of the things that has given me a lot of hope is the amount of interest that I've seen, not just in Puerto Rico but from the international community, and not just the scientific community but just in general," she said, particularly welcoming the advocacy campaign young Puerto Rican scientists are spearheading. 

"Efforts are now shifting toward, 'We can rebuild,'" Feliú-Mójer said. "There's still a lot of value on rebuilding a radio telescope — a better, stronger, more powerful radio telescope in that same place."

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

Meghan Bartels
SPACE.COM SENIOR WRITER — Meghan is a science journalist based in New York City. She joined Space.com in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her free time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.

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