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The Arecibo Observatory: A Marvel of Science and Technology


The Arecibo Observatory: A Marvel of Science and Technology

The Arecibo radio telescope

Photo © Puerto Rico Tourism Company

What Is It?:

The Arecibo Observatory is home to the world's largest single-dish radio telescope. It is part of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC), which is operated by Cornell University under an agreement with the National Science Foundation, with additional support by Nasa. The Observatory is considered one of the most important national centers for research in radio astronomy, planetary radar and terrestrial aeronomy, and it is used by scientists from around the world. The telescope operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Why is it Special?:

You only have to take one look at the absolutely massive dish, or radio mirror, to appreciate how special this place is. The thousand-foot dish is nestled aming lush green hills, is over 150 feet deep and covers roughly 20 acres. It is truly an engineering marvel. Suspended 450 feet above the dish is a 900 ton platform, which hangs in midair on eighteen cables.

From a scientific perspecitve, it is the sheer size of the reflector that makes the Arecibo Observatory special. It is the largest curved focusing antenna in the world, and therefore the world's most sensitive radio telescope.

What is it Used For?:

The Arecibo Observatory is used for three main fields of research:
  • Radio Astronomy: Astronomers have used the telescope to detect radio emissions from distant regions of the universe, enabling them to measure distances and masses of galaxies. The observatory has also enriched our knowledge of pulsars.
  • Atmospheric Science: Arecibo has been a critical tool in the study of the composition, temperature and densities of our atmosphere.
  • Radar Astronomy: Among other experiments, the telescope has been used to create surface maps of Mercury, Venus and the moon. The first detection of radar echo from a comet was made here.

How to Get Here?:

From San Juan, take Route 25 or 26 to Route 18, which in turn leads to Route 22 (Expreso de Diego), heading West. You'll be on this road for 47 miles before turning right on Exit 77B. This will put you on Route 129, heading toward Lares. After less then three miles, turn left on Route 63 (you'll see a Texaco Gas Station at the corner) and follow this road for about 5 miles until you turn left onto Route 625. In three miles, you'll reach the Observatory.

Does Arecibo Offer Tours?:

There are several tour companies that offer tours to Arecibo, and usually package it with a visit to the stunning Camuy Caves nearby. Among these are:

Think You've Seen It Before?:

The Arecibo Observatory is a celebrity, of sorts. If you get a sense Déjà vu when you see it, it may be because you're a James Bond fan. The telescope was the site of the famous final showdown between Pierce Brosnan and bad guy Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) in Goldeneye. It was also in Jodie Foster's movie Contact, and was featured in an episode of The X-Files. Not a bad resume, eh?
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