Looking Up at Arecibo


Visiting one of the world’s great observatories is always a highlight for any astronomy enthusiast. Most of us “collect” observatories, and try to get to as many as possible in our lifetime of travels and explorations. This last week provided me an opportunity to visit a place of legendary status in astronomy, the Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico. This is the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, and consists of a 1000-foot metal dish suspended in a natural bowl in the island landscape.

In this shot, our tour group, part of the “Cosmic Trails” Caribbean cruise I was on that week, is standing underneath the metal mesh dish, looking up toward the antennas suspended high above the dish. This is a rare and privileged place to stand — driving down into and under the dish isn’t on the usual tourist tour. Had they been beaming powerful radar signals out to some solar system target that afternoon we would not have been able to stand here. As it was, they were listing to signals from pulsars. We also got into the main control room to talk to the observers and technicians at work that afternoon.

I won’t provide all the background about this remarkable observatory (you can read about it yourself at Wikipedia or visit the telescope’s webpage). However, movie fans will know this location from its appearance in the movie Contact and in the James Bond film Goldeneye. And it is well-known for its role in broadcasting signals to potential aliens and for listing to signals from extraterrestrials. However, one of its main roles these days is bouncing radar signals off passing near-Earth asteroids, and producing radar “images” of those asteroids. Arecibo also discovered, back in the 1960s, the true rotation rate of Mercury, now visible at its best in the evening sky.

– Alan, March 13, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

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