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Hurricane Maria Hit Puerto Rico’s Giant Telescope

2017-10-02

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[00:00.00]
  • Hurricane Maria severely damaged Puerto Rico’s electricity and communications systems.
  • [00:08.31]
  • Millions of people there are without power, water or food.
  • [00:14.66]
  • The storm also caused damage to a well-known scientific tool in the U.S. territory – the Arecibo Observatory.
  • [00:27.14]
  • Until last year, it was the largest single telescope of its kind in the world.
  • [00:35.71]
  • Many of the observatory’s instruments appear to be unharmed.
  • [00:41.02]
  • Arecibo Deputy Director Joan Schmelz called that “a thing to be thankful for” in an interview with the Associated Press.
  • [00:53.84]
  • But a large antenna used to study the Earth’s upper atmosphere broke during the storm, the AP reported.
  • [01:04.03]
  • Damage to the observatory is estimated to be in the millions of dollars.
  • [01:10.10]
  • The observatory is home to the Arecibo radio telescope, a 305-meter- wide dish.
  • [01:21.82]
  • It collects radio waves and focuses them onto scientific instruments that measure and process them.
  • [01:31.42]
  • The instruments are suspended above the dish on towers over 80 meters high.
  • [01:40.22]
  • During the storm, a small group of researchers remained at the observatory.
  • [01:47.16]
  • They stayed in its concrete buildings.
  • [01:51.40]
  • They had some food and water, but, like most in Puerto Rico, were cut off from the rest of the world.
  • [02:00.14]
  • Perhaps not surprisingly, the first people that the researchers were able to contact after the storm were amateur radio operators.
  • [02:12.35]
  • The storm damage threatens the telescope’s future in several ways.
  • [02:19.01]
  • It is supported by the National Science Foundation, or NSF, in Alexandria, Virginia, as well as the U.S. space agency, NASA.
  • [02:31.37]
  • Funding limitations and the desire to build and operate newer telescopes has made the NSF think about cutting its support for older telescopes.
  • [02:44.86]
  • Arecibo could face closure if money cannot be found to repair it and to continue operations.
  • [02:54.79]
  • The Arecibo radio telescope has been involved in well-known scientific research since first being used in the 1960s.
  • [03:07.06]
  • It was used to find an unusual kind of star system, a binary pulsar, in 1967.
  • [03:16.31]
  • The discovery received a Nobel Prize in 1974.
  • [03:23.46]
  • The telescope can be used to study radio signals coming from space.
  • [03:30.21]
  • It also can send out radio waves as radar.
  • [03:36.25]
  • Radar can be used to study conditions in the Earth’s atmosphere and detect asteroids that pass dangerously close to Earth.
  • [03:48.11]
  • The huge dish was also part of the SETI project, an effort to search for signs of extraterrestrial life.
  • [03:58.25]
  • The Arecibo telescope was surpassed in size last July by the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope in Guizhou, China.
  • [04:12.86]
  • Hurricane Maria, a category four storm, left most of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million U.S. citizens without power or basic necessities.
  • [04:27.17]
  • Telephone communications were nearly wiped out, as the storm destroyed cell phone towers.
  • [04:35.58]
  • The observatory is expected to be closed for some time because of the damage.
  • [04:43.23]
  • Scientists may be able to carry out some kinds of observations soon, but others will not be possible for a long time.
  • [04:54.78]
  • James Ulvestad is acting director for NSF’s math and physics directorate.
  • [05:03.23]
  • He said research, like bouncing radar off of other planets, requires a lot of power from the island’s electricity grid, which was severely damaged by the hurricane.
  • [05:18.77]
  • The recovery response has been slow, as supplies need to be flown in or shipped to the island.
  • [05:29.02]
  • President Donald Trump has promised the island aid.
  • [05:33.84]
  • Damage is estimated to be in the billions of dollars.
  • [05:39.07]
  • Meanwhile, workers with the Federal Emergency Management Agency are trying to set up aid centers across the U.S. territory.
  • [05:50.79]
  • Puerto Rico’s government is also burdened by tens of billions of dollars in debt that it is unable to pay.
  • [06:01.35]
  • The island is seeking protection from its creditors in the biggest government bankruptcy in U.S. history.
  • [06:10.62]
  • I’m Mario Ritter.
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