Hurricane Maria wreaks havoc on Arecibo radio telescope

Jon Fingas

Puerto Rico is suffering on an unimaginable scale in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Many have been displaced from their homes, and the entire territory may go without electricity and reliable communication for months. And while the human tragedy is clearly the most important concern, it's also having a terrible effect on the scientific community. Researchers have learned that the Arecibo Observatory and its signature radio telescope took significant damage when the hurricane passed over. All staff members are thankfully safe for now, but an atmospheric radar line feed and a 39-foot dish (used for Very Long Baseline Interferometry) were lost in winds that reached up to 155MPH. The gigantic central dish is intact, although the line feed's collapse punctured it in places.

To make matters worse, the situation is dire for on-site staff. The National Science Foundation understands that team members have generators, a water well and food for a week, but the roads may be impassable for days.

The hurricane compounds what was already a difficult period for the observatory. The NSF doesn't believe it can keep funding Arecibo itself, and has been looking for partners who could shoulder the burden. Now, the telescope's future is even more in doubt. While it sounds like repairs are feasible, can the NSF or any potential allies justify funding those repairs? It wouldn't be as simple as shutting down Arecibo (there are environmental considerations), so its fate is very much in limbo. The only certainty is that Puerto Rico needs help right now -- please consider donating to a relief fund if you can.

USRA, Nadia Drake (Twitter)