Skip to main content

The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico: A Sad Ending


We love to travel (as you can tell from my blog posts) and share our stories and adventures. Whenever we mention our visit to Puerto Rico, it always seems intriguing to people. A while back I shared our visit to the Bacardi Rum Plant, and today I want to share our experience at the Arecibo Observatory when we visited in May of 2004.


Arecibo 2

This 1000-foot (305 meters) telescope is the world's largest single-aperture telescope.  It contains the largest curved focusing dish on Earth, giving Arecibo the largest electromagnetic-wave-gathering capacity. The dish surface is made of 38,778 perforated aluminum panels, each about 3 by 6 feet (1 by 2 m), supported by a mesh of steel cables. It is used in three major areas of research: radio astronomy, atmospheric science, and radar astronomy.

We decided we had to see it while there and made it happen even though we only had a couple of days. We are so glad we did. It is extremely impressive. The first thing we did was walk around the visitor’s center, which officially opened on March 1, 1997. Of course, you couldn’t miss the HUGE dish as we pulled up, but we headed inside first to learn a little bit about it. Their building consists of 1000 square feet which they have separated into several areas: The Auditorium, Tools and Technology, The Earth and Solar System, and the Work at Arecibo.


I think my favorite section was the Tools and Technology section (duh, lol) because It included an interactive model of the Arecibo radio telescope and a visual tour of the observatory. There were also some exhibits that provided hands-on experiences on the Doppler effect, light and color, the electromagnetic spectrum, and spectroscopy, the operation of the telescope, the optical laboratory, and the HF facility. It was a pretty exciting section which we both enjoyed immensely.

The Earth and Solar System section were great too, but it also brought back memories of science and astronomy classes, lol.  Like I said it was pretty cool though. This area had a lot of basic information about the planets, the sun, asteroids, and comets. It includes a meteorite collection, a planetary orrery, an aerial map of Puerto Rico, and the "Powers of Ten" video presentation. The Earth exhibit also described the physical characteristics of our changing world (interior, surface, and atmosphere), and the tools and techniques scientists use to study the planet.


After we had fun exploring the Visitor Center, we headed outside to see this massive dish. Originally we had wanted to get closer to it, but it was a very long uphill hike and we didn’t have any water, so we just enjoyed the view from their observation deck. While we were watching the dish moved into another position which was very exciting.  We had both been wondering if we would get to see it move, so that was pretty cool.

After we left it was lunchtime so we grabbed a sandwich near the observatory and found a nice place in the shade to eat and watch the scope. We talked about going back in the evening to see if it was lit, etc, but we never did make it back. Guess we should have asked someone if they knew. If you have been, and happen to know, please share and let us know. It would be greatly appreciated. Here is a link to their website, if you want more information.


Arecibo-outside 3As I was finishing this post and getting links, etc. I found out some terrible news: the Arecibo Observatory Telescope Collapsed   I guess with so much else going on right now, I must have missed any news about this tragic incident. Even though it has survived more hurricanes, tornados, and earthquakes than they probably want to think about, especially Hurricane Maria in 2017. On December 1, 2020, the 900 ton suspended platform collapsed. Not only was the 57-year-old telescope destroyed, when it fell it also destroyed the huge dish below. I can't even imagine the devastation they are feeling, especially after a year like 2020   I am saddened to hear about it, and I only visited once.

I still remember the first time I remember seeing or hearing about the Arecibo Observatory and Telescope. It was in the movie Contact. Apparently, it was also in GoldenEye, but I've never seen it.  For the locals, this was a field trip that every schoolchild goes on once. It's like the Alamo for kids in Texas or La Brea Tarpits in Los Angeles. It's just so sad and devastating. We had been talking about going back to Puerto Rico, after the pandemic nightmare is over, and had hoped to visit again and see what new programs, etc. they were working on. Guess that won't happen, at least not for a while.

Arecibo dish

However, according to an article by AAAS, astronomers are looking to the future. “First we mourned, then we had a wake, then we got down to work,” says Joanna Rankin, an astronomer at the University of Vermont. Together with Arecibo staff, researchers, last month delivered a white paper to NSF describing plans for a new $400 million telescope on the same site. Although any rebuilding effort faces major political and financial hurdles, the proposal aims for an instrument with even more dazzling capabilities than the one that was lost. “There’s been a remarkable amount of commitment and energy,” Rankin says.

The community has mourned their loss on Twitter with the hashtag #WhatAreciboMeansToMe. There have been hundreds of stories from locals and tourists, astronomers and enthusiasts alike. I am planning to check it out soon and share a story or two. Such a shame that 2020 claimed another victim. Best of luck to all of you there in Puerto Rico. I am truly sorry for your loss.

Arecibo dish 2


Images (7)
  • Arecibo - Sign
  • Arecibo 2
  • Arecibo dish 2
  • Arecibo dish
  • Arecibo-inside
  • Arecibo-outside 3
  • Arecibo-outside1

Add Comment

Comments (0)

Link copied to your clipboard.