Much of the news from Puerto Rico at present is depressing: shaky bonds, decreasing population, financial crisis, and uncertain leadership.
Puerto Rico has a lot to be proud of, though, and one of the many jewels in Puerto Rico’s crown is the Arecibo Observatory, housing the largest and most sensitive single-dish radio telescope in the world at 1,000 feet in diameter. Built in the 1960s to study the ionosphere and updated in 1997 with a $25,000,000 upgrade, the Observatory is still considered a major center for research in a variety of fields. The Observatory is part of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC), supported by the National Science Foundation and jointly administered by SRI International, USRA and UMET.
Puerto Rico was chosen as the site for the observatory because it is near the equator, and because it had a suitable karst sinkhole — a natural depression where the radio dish could be built. The dish is composed of approximately 40,000 aluminum panels, each 3′ by 6′, strung on steel cables. The resulting reflective surface covers some 20 acres. The sheer size of the dish means that the natural support offered by the limestone was essential.
Researchers from around the world visit the Observatory and work with the 16 scientists on staff to learn more about subjects as diverse as quasars and dark matter. Two reflectors in a dome above the main dish allow observation at a level of sensitivity and speed unrivaled elsewhere.
The Observatory employs approximately 140 people.
The Observatory celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and continues to operate 24 hours a day even through the recent government shutdown.