Puerto Rican scientists, shattered by the collapse of the Arecibo observatory, seek rebuilding

Genesis Ferrer has dreamed of working at the Arecibo observatory since she first met some astrophysicists during a high school trip in Puerto Rico.

After hearing them use terms like “radiation” and “emission,” Ferrer, 21, said, “I fell in love with the whole idea of ​​being able to understand things far away.” Like many scientists on the US territory, Ferrer could trace her interest in astrophysics, biophysics and space to that school trip.

A fourth-year physics student from the University of Puerto Rico, Campus Rio Piedras, recently received a fellowship from the NASA Space Association in Puerto Rico to study emissions from red dwarf stars using the Giant Radio Telescope in Arecibo. Due to coronavirus restrictions, Ferrer has been accessing the data she needs from the Arecibo observatory remotely, hoping that she will soon be able to finish her investigation where it all started.

Those hopes faded when Tuesday morning Arecibo collapsed. The 900-ton telescope receiving platform and the Gregorian dome – a structure up to a four-story building housing secondary reflectors – fell on the northern part of a broad reflector dish over 400 feet after the main cables held the structures. Break overnight.

“I was so sad, so disappointed,” Ferrer told NBC News. “I worked hard until I was finally accepted to work at the Arecibo Observatory. Now that I am accepted, I cannot work at it. I felt very sad, not only individually, but I also saw that it was very sad for Puerto Rico and the science in Puerto Rico.”

The Arecibo Observatory was the largest radio telescope in the world and a point of pride for Puerto Ricans, whether they were into science or not. About 90,000 islanders and tourists visit the observatory every year, which is a boon for the area.

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During its nearly 57 years in operation, the observatory built with funds from the US Department of Defense has been at the forefront of space research – and an important training ground for space science students.

In August, the observatory began to collapse after an additional cable broke, damaging the telescope dish and receiving platform hung above it, according to the US National Science Foundation, the federal agency that owns the observatory. In an attempt to prevent the “uncontrolled collapse” ofSafely maintain other parts of the observatory that could be damaged or destroyedThe agency said it began its plan to shut down the telescope in mid-November.

“The National Science Foundation was taking a long time to do this because they had a series of protocols that they had to follow,” said Abel Mendes, director of the Planetary Living Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico, the Arecibo campus, and a planetary biologist. “We thought they had an emergency plan that could speed things up.”

But the cables broke before the agency could maintain the telescope.

Dreams of practicing science in Puerto Rico ‘faded’

Ariana Colón, a third-year physics student at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez Campus, said she became particularly interested in pursuing a career in astrophysics or astrophysics after watching “The Theory of Everything” and getting to know Stephen Hawking.

“If my options were limited when we had Arecibo, and now that it has basically disappeared, my chance of staying in Puerto Rico has diminished,” Colon told NBC News. “It was my dream to stay here and return the favor to my island.”

Colón had just begun working with Mendes on an investigation into Borisov’s comet when cables from the observatory were first cut in August. I started by analyzing some of the data that the telescope had already obtained, but eventually Colon would have learned to use it on his own and capture more data for future investigations. But this never happened.

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“I was very close and then it all collapsed,” she said.

Kevin Ortiz, 22, fourth-year physics student from the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus, has been conducting astronomy investigations at the observatory for nearly three years.

“It’s a tragedy because we see our dreams fizzle out,” said Ortiz, who was also working on a new investigation alongside Mendez. “I was in total shock – the Arecibo Observatory is an engineering marvel that has been built to last much longer.”

An “incalculable” educational footprint calling for rebuilding

For many in Puerto Rico, the collapse of the Arecibo Observatory was a grim metaphor for the reality of an island that has been in crisis for more than a decade. Puerto Ricans have been grappling with My biggest bankruptcy in US history, as long Hurricane Maria – The The deadliest natural disaster in the United States in 100 years This resulted in the deaths of at least 2,975 people in 2017. Most recently, the island faced A series of strong earthquakes that Hundreds of buildings demolished Before the coronavirus pandemic hit the island. Islanders can hardly remember a time when their lives were not filled with hardships.

Against this background, the Arecibo Observatory has acted as a “gateway to opportunity” for its students, Mendes said.

“At the moment, Kevin is applying to graduate school and is able to say, ‘I posted a scientific publication in the Arecibo Observatory,’” it will automatically pop up since many undergraduates do not have experience working with world-class tools, Mendes said of Ortiz. But Ferrer and Colón, his two other students, “and many others will not have this opportunity” anytime soon.

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After the National Science Foundation announced plans to shut down the observatory, more than 140 students and science professionals gathered to start Conservation of Arecibo Movement on social media.

Puerto Ricans at STEM – a coalition of Puerto Rican on the island and the mainland working in STEM fields – joined the movement and helped collect more than 65,000 signatures in less than two weeks for a period A petition demanding the White House to save the observatory After raising awareness through #SaveTheAOAnd the #WhatAreciboMeansToMe And now #RebuildAreciboObservatory The hashtag, said CEO Ramon Mesla.

Now, groups Refocus their efforts In getting help from the US Congress to rebuild the telescope.

“The telescope has collapsed but the investigation facility and visitor center are still there. With adequate funding, we have a viable path toward reconstruction,” Ortiz said. “The educational impact of the observatory is incalculable, at all levels, from professionals and university students to the high school academy and elementary schools that visit our center.”

Wilbert Roberto, who helped start Conservation of Arecibo Movement, wed thatNew petition Calls for reconstruction are being discussed by members of the scientific community. It may be out today or tomorrow. “

“We have shown that we have the ability to meet,” said Mesla. “I think the scientific community and the STEM community in general, we are together, they will make a difference.”

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