Arecibo Observatory Gone Forever

Image (Credit): Matthew McConaughey and Jodie Foster at the Arecibo Observatory in the movie Contact. (Warner Bros.)

If you were hoping that the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico would have a second life, it may be time to say goodbye. Efforts to rebuild the radio telescope since it collapsed in 2020 have ended. Nature reports that the US National Science Foundation (NSF) has given up on the idea of rebuilding the telescope and instead plans to establish an educational center at the site.

You may have memories from the 1997 film Contact where Matthew McConaughey and Jodie Foster enjoyed some private time at the Observatory. Her character Dr. Ellie Arroway was working at the Observatory as part of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence works (SETI) program. In fact, the SETI connection is true. You can see a SETI tribute to the telescope here.

Of course, scientists will remember almost 60 years of work with the radio telescope. While it was initially built for military purposes, it was soon transformed into a scientific site and served as the largest radio telescope on the planet for some time. As far as scientific accomplishments, here are a few of them from the NSF:

  • 1967: Arecibo discovered that the rotation rate of Mercury is 59 days, not the previously estimated 88 days.
  • 1981: Arecibo produced the first radar maps of the surface of Venus.
  • 1992: Arecibo discovered the first ever exoplanet: In subsequent observations, an entire planetary system was found around the pulsar PSR 1257+12.
  • 2008: Astronomers use Arecibo to detect for the first time, methanimine and hydrogen cyanide molecules — two organic molecules that are key ingredients in forming amino acids — in a galaxy 250 million light-years away.

So many new telescopes have come online in the past 60 years that some will say we will be fine with an educational center. This is true, but it is also worth remembering each of the telescopes along the way that helped us to understand this awesome universe of ours.

Image (Credit): The damaged Arecibo Observatory reflector dish after suffering damage from a broken cable. (University of Central Florida)