In a period of weeks when we’ve talked a lot about famous filming locations in LA, Manhattan, and the UK, one such iconic location tucked into the vast greenery of Puerto Rico has been unfortunately lost to us. The Arecibo Observatory, seen in the 1997 extraterrestrial film Contact and the climax of 1995 Bond film Goldeneye, was once part of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and had been used by NASA to confirm facts about near-Earth objects (NEOs) since its opening in 1963 up until last month! It was decommissioned due to safety concerns, because two of the cables that held its massive telescope snapped in August and early November. It had sustained hurricane damage over a number of years, including some from Hurricane Maria that devastated much of the island of Puerto Rico.
On December 1, the last of the cables holding the 900-ton telescope platform were pulled from their bearings and the entire mechanism collapsed into the massive radio dish below. This ruled out the possibility of a controlled demolition, and caught a lot of attention online from both the scientific community and those who had enjoyed the facility’s many cameos in pop culture throughout the years.
In a year where the value of good science is thought by some to be self-evident, and is under more scrutiny than ever before by others, this loss came as a result of a financial plight that many people simply did not know about. You may think that widespread cultural knowledge of a place and the many astronomical “firsts” it achieved would earn it enough momentum to excite investors — sadly, Arecibo had been in a years-long struggle.
Arecibo is a property of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), which has been vying for more funding for years now, particularly for the kind of radio astronomy that this observatory practiced. While some might argue that the need for this work isn’t exactly self-evident anymore, other countries have been building radio telescopes to rival Arecibo very recently: China completed its Five-hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) for active duty starting in 2020, but it will be incredibly difficult to build one as powerful as the telescope at Arecibo.
To give you a sense of what it was able to accomplish, Arecibo’s radio scans of the surface of Titan led to the postulation that it held liquid methane lakes — long before any probe got there to confirm the data up close. It scanned the surfaces of Mercury and Venus, and helped astronomers detect and confirm the existence of the first exoplanet in 1992.
In both the scientific community and Puerto Rican society, Arecibo is an immeasurable loss. Scientists effectively said last month that losing the observatory would create a hole in our scientific knowledge and cultural zeitgeist that could not be filled again. “Until very recently, it was the biggest radio telescope in the world, and that was always a point of pride for Puerto Rico,” said Emily Alicea-Muñoz, a Puerto Rican radio astronomer to space.com. “We may be a tiny little island in the middle of the Caribbean, but we can do big science.”
Arecibo was also a major driver of tourism to Puerto Rico, as visitors could take tours of the public facilities and enjoy a museum experience about the research conducted there. When the Puerto Rico tourism industry was already struggling in recent years as a result of hurricane damage and now, of course, the pandemic, this loss comes at a poor time. That said, the island is still an incredibly rich and appealing destination that should mount a comeback as the world is able to open up in the coming months. The world is going to look very different post-pandemic and without Arecibo, but it will still be ours, and its future will remain our shared responsibility.
While it’s important to memorialize, there are a number of ways you can directly support Puerto Rico in the short term. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, one nonprofit launched Shop+Hire Puerto Rico, a service where you can shop directly from all kinds of vendors on the island or hire freelancers. If the pandemic has forced you to work from home, and maybe consider the digital nomad lifestyle, why not work from one of the island’s beautiful beach communities?
“Puerto Rico is the best of both worlds” says Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico. “It provides the comforts of the mainland US, while having the international flair of being a destination that is heavily influenced by its Spanish, Taino, and African roots.” Further, Puerto Rico is taking health and safety seriously and is the first US destination to receive the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) Safe Travel Stamp, a program designed to recognize the tireless work from island officials to implement strong COVID protocols.