Daily Archives: December 1, 2020

Legacy of Arecibo’s Telescope

This aerial view of Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, taken on November 19, 2020, shows a hole in the radio dish panels created when a cable broke and crashed through the dish. The large platform above the dish has now collapsed as well.
© Photograph by Ricardo Arduengo, AFP via Getty Images

One of the most powerful tools for exploring the universe is no more. The radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico* collapsed this morning. It has essentially been out of commission since August when a supporting cable snapped; a second snapped in November and it was deemed too dangerous to attempt a repair. Today another section fell, completing the destruction.

We usually think of telescopes as having glass lenses to magnify visible light. Light, of course, is part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Radio telescopes observe electromagnetic waves that have wavelengths longer than visible light. There is plenty to be learned at all wavelengths.

Probably the most memorable thing associated with Arecibo is that it was involved with SETI–the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. The search itself is interesting, but more importantly, it was the driving force behind distributed computing. In other words, if you don’t have a supercomputer, like SETI, you can break the data to be analyzed and the algorithms into smaller pieces to be used to volunteers throughout the world. Eventually, after the analysis is completed and cross-checked, the date, like a huge jigsaw puzzle is put back together. Computer owners volunteered to let their computers run when they were not using them so that SETI could run its programs.

Today, Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) offers a wide variety of projects for computers to work on when they would otherwise be unused, including analysis of the global climate, the search for cures for various diseases, etc.

The Arecibo telescope may be rebuilt–or maybe not. In any case, it made major contributions to the scientific world.

* In case you’ve forgotten, Puerto Rico is a territory of the USA and its citizens are Americans, many of whom hope that Puerto Rico will soon become a state.