What Is Worth Saving?

When it rain, it pours. One of the primary support cables holding up the Arecibo Observatory dish in Puerto Rico has just snapped, leaving its already uncertain fate. It had been badly damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017, and after a few years of fundraising, the repairs were just about to begin on fixing up that damage, when the cable broke. Because the remaining cables are now holding increased weight, humans aren’t allowed to work on the dome until the risk of catastrophic failure has been ruled out — they’re doing inspection by drone.

Arecibo Observatory has had quite a run. It started out life as part of a Cold War era ICBM-tracking radar, which explains why it can transmit as well as receive. And it was the largest transmitting dish the world had. It was used in SETI, provided the first clues of gravitational waves, and found the first repeating fast radio bursts. Its radar capabilities mean that it could be used in asteroid detection. There are a number of reasons, not the least of which its historic import, to keep it running.

So when we ran this story, many commenters, fearing the worst, wrote in with their condolences. But some wrote in with outrage at the possibility that it might not be repaired. The usual suspects popped up: failure to spend enough on science, or on infrastructure. From the sidelines, however, and probably until further structural studies are done, we have no idea how much a repair of Arecibo will cost. After that, we have to decide if it’s worth it.

Per a 2018 grant, the NSF was splitting the $20 M repair and maintenance bill with a consortium led by the University of Central Florida that will administer the site. With further damage, that might be an underestimate, but we don’t know how much of one yet.

When do you decide to pull the plug on something like this? Although the biggest, Arecibo isn’t the only transmitter out there. The next largest transmitters are part of Deep Space Network, though, and are busy keeping touch with spacecraft all around our solar system. For pure receiving, China’s FAST is bigger and better. And certainly, we’ve learned a lot about radio telescopes since Arecibo was designed.

I’m not saying that we won’t shed a tear if Arecibo doesn’t get repaired, but it’s not the case that the NSF’s budget has been hit dramatically, or that they’re unaware of the comparative value of various big-ticket astronomy projects. Without being in their shoes, and having read through the thousands of competing grant proposals, it’s hard to say that the money spent to prop up a 70 year old telescope wouldn’t be better spent on something else.

72 thoughts on “What Is Worth Saving?

    1. I call BS on your comment. My daily driver is a 1991 VW Passat B3 with 1.9 diesel engine, I bought it with 480000 kilometers on the odometer, now it’s at over 750000 and I can assure you it will keep on going long after your modern KIAs and Teslas turn to rust.

          1. But bringing this back to the topic, the essential pieces of the Arecibo observatory are the reflector and the movable platform that the RF front ends are mounted on. The rest is all modular and replaceable. A facility like Arecibo is much like a skyscraper – it is designed and built to last more than anything that goes inside it. Yes, there comes a point when the building is no longer viable, and has to be demolished. But is this that point? It doesn’t seem to me like cables are so integral that they can’t be replaced, and it also doesn’t seem like the amount of damage to the reflector was extinsive. But if the real problem is that the framework that those cables are mounted to is failing, then there could be an argument for demolition.

      1. I don’t think you read the article. The cables are holding up the dish. They are old and have been in a hot, humid, jungle environment for nearly 69 years. Now that two are gone the tension on the rest is much higher, and the experts who know about these things have said it is unsafe to work on. This was and still is a one off. If the latest cable break was due to metal fatigue, then it is not safe to attempt repairs without major, and expensive temporary support. Science budgets are always stretched. If the cost is, as I suspect, at least 10s of millions, if not 100s, then you can get better value spending it elsewhere. This is not a car so your analogy is BS!

    2. Yeah, I get that, but this argument assumes that a new daily driver is an actual option. Given the struggle for science funds, the odds of finding money to build a new Arecibo seem… slim.

      If you can’t *get* a new model, then it makes sense (within reason) to keep repairing what you have – see: 1950’s era Chevies rolling down every boulevard in Havana.

    3. The problem with the daily driver analogy is most cars spend 90%+ of their time sitting unused.

      The worlds largest observatories have, essentially, infinite demand for their services.

      Its not like the Chinese scope will merely operate 30 minutes per day instead of 15 minutes per day if Arecibo goes down permanently. Its more like “about half” of astronomy megaproject-level research will be eliminated due to lack of hardware.

  1. It still is a viable device, especially as we wouldn’t have to rely on China to share the wealth, so to speak. Also as a ready built backup, that adds to the idea.

  2. The NASA networks are not really available for any sort of research. They’re pretty much fully scheduled to support launches, satellites and other missions. They’re not flexible so far as frequency or other parameters. Their hourly rate is expensive when you can manage to schedule them. $20 million is pocket change. Do you really want to miss out on a call from extraterrestrials because the phone is broken? E.T, phone home. Sorry, no dial tone.

    1. Not to knock the SETI but once I understood how radio works I’m dubious that listening for ET in RF is likely to be productive. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do it but it does seem unrealistic. The power levels required to overcome the inverse squared relationship across those distances alone seems a likely show stopper.

      1. We will likely *never* receive an intelligently designed radio signal from something of non human nature. They (alien) would have had to evolve rapidly into intelligent creatures, millions of years before life even got its start here on earth. It just can’t work, mostly because we didn’t understand enough about the universe when we started looking. Given the fact that pretty much all the first proto planets have developed within the same band of time (as all material was released at the same time, i.e., Big Bang theory), if we haven’t received a signal by now we will only receive the earliest of their signals in the millions of years it takes for it to cross space. This is assuming they became as intelligent as us, and life evolved same pace as us. Then you factor in the distance and how fast light can traverse space. It could take just over 100 million years to even get something within our own galaxy (i.e., the Milky Way Galaxy is 105,700 ly). Humans may not even be here any longer when the signals arrive. Earth, if it still holds any life, won’t even be in the same place once the signal arrive. That assumes they knew we were here and directed it towards us. Sorry guys. I want to believe we can find them too, but the reality is it was an effort in futility. I’m sure we here all understand the massive scale to the universe. Light carries a massive speed scale as well, but it is far outpaced by the expansion of our universe. We are alone out here, and we need to focus on taking care of this rock.

        1. “all the first proto planets have developed within the same band of time…” What? Stars, and presumably the planetary systems around them, have been created more or less continuously for at least 8 billion years. The critical thing is that the clout which condenses to create the system must itself be a remnant of previous supernova explosions to contain heavy elements such as iron for making rocky worlds like the Earth. Since the stars that become supernova don’t live very long in cosmological terms, there were plenty of them by the time the Universe was only a few billion years old. The galaxy being ~100K light years across means signals from within this galaxy will arrive within ~100K years, not 100 million. There are vast technical challenges and timing problems, but nothing such as you suggest.

      2. We will be able to hear extraterrestrials when they develop the ability to modulate stars. And they will hear us when we do so. I mean, assuming they exist and are relatively close. Bonus: nobody is going to mess with a civilization that can modulate stars.

        1. Modulating starlight could probably be done on the (relatively) cheap with something like big a LCD panel which could conceivably be constructed in-orbit. They already have the brightness, you’d just need to cast a shadow.

          1. Which sounds easy enough until you consider the AREA of that “big” LCD panel, and what kind of resources it would take to build it. But then you have to consider that unless you encircle – no, ensphere the entire star, if you wanted to broadcast omnidirectionally. Of course, you don’t have to block the whole area of the star; even 10% amplitude modulation could get someone’s attention. But you’d be seriously better off setting off a series of fusion bombs at pulse-position modulated times. Which is a form of star modulation.

        2. Interesting. The Sun’s radius is 2.3 light seconds. If you can modulate the light output of the whole surface, you are limited to maybe 10 seconds per bit. On the other hand, if you have englobed your star with independent shutters, you can time them to “aim” in a partucular direction at the same time looking continuous from the side.

          BTW, in one of the E.E. Doc Smith Lensman stories the use ships and asteroids to make an analogy to the plate and grid of a vacuum tube and momentarily direct all the Sun’s output to a point in space as a defensive weapon. Written some time between 1929 and 1950 – I don’t recall which book.

  3. The problem is not that Arecibo is old, but that ( as many other important pieces of infrastructure ) it wasn´t correctly mantained

    And what people many times forget to consider, when all that talk about “cutting the losses”, or “too old, better start with something new” is that it is harder to get the funds to build something new , it takes a very long time ( when and if it is done ) and possibly would not have the same capabilities as what it is replacing, due to politicians focus on cuttings costs and not on technical specs.

    Just as an exercise for imagination, we can try to imagine what it would take ( on talks, meetings, politic deals, etc ) to get a new railroad between NY and Los Angeles built. Or between Madrid and Moscow

  4. Is that the price for the fence built before Obama, or after? Where are you getting your numbers anyway? And are you simply ignoring the fact that a border fence saves money every year, which would otherwise be spent on active border protection.

    1. That is the amount authorized by former secretary of defense Esper, 3.6 billion for 175 miles, during the trump administration. I don’t see how Obama has anything to do with it. I don’t think the previous comment ignores the benefits, it merely stated the cost in a poignant way. Maybe you’d like to give us some numbers to help us understand the benefits.

      1. Isn’t that the UH-1 aka Huey? Anyway, the procurement cost is about twice the “flyaway” cost (marginal per built unit, w/o support or parts), and those 250K need an inflation adjustment after > 45 years.

    1. So, you are saying that any of 100’s of wealthy Americans could fix it up and never notice the cost. Seth Macfarlane is a big Sagan fan. Send him a note. Mike Bloomberg spent over $1 billion on the latest US election cycle. Someone give him the elevator pitch on worthwhile projects.

  5. What in 48 years of reading about Arecibo, I’ve never seen the ICBM angle. It was a radio telescope that could also transmit. (I want to say the radar was used to penetrate the clouds on Venus, but I may be mixing in science fiction).

    Yes, in 1964 Sam Harris arranged the use of Arecibo for ham moonbounce, I think two separate sessions. (But Sam is also supposed to be the originator of “if your antenna stays up all winter, it’s too small).

    Yes, wikioedia says something about ICBM’s. But it sounds more like they got ARPA funding for the telescope, so long as they did some study of the ionosphere. .No direct search for ICBM’s which seems to be implied.

    People mangle the origins of ARPAnet. It was to share big computers, and incidentally to test out theories of packet switching. The decentralized nature was supposed to survive a nuclear attack. But ARPAnet wasn’t for defense, or to be there after a nuclear attack.

    ARPA funded things that might provide results useful to defense, but some of it really benefited the grouos being funded more than the funding organization.

  6. If this is allowed to rust into oblivion, it will be seen by historians as huge nail in the coffin of the US Empire.

    We’re using up resources at a rate never seen before. We have to get in the habit — well-practiced by past generations — of fixing things, rather than abandoning them and building new.

    1. Really? Does any of the U.S.’s current reputation rely on Aricebo? I see this argument as valid when it’s applied to the Space Shuttles, but a radar/radiotelescope installation? I don’t think so.

  7. The problem with idea of “just building a new telescope” is readily apparent in Hawaii. Few decades ago, building a new scientific instrument was seen as a net good. Now, a tiny group of locals (look up demographics and polls of Hawaii, it’s an interesting read) can attract immense global attention, support of celebrities, politicians, even some scientists (mostly on the softer side of science). Suddenly project becomes controversial, inflating costs and delaying construction.

    Of course, this is a very specific, even unique, example. But it illustrates how problematic can large projects be in modern, open society. Science is, and always was, an afterthought for politicians. Giving money on scientific projects always raises questions about immediate utility. Marshalling support for a major project is a huge undertaking, requiring years of work, thousands of people and intense lobbying. Take Europa Clipper mission as one example.

    Building a new telescope is certainly an option. But it is not an option pursued by politicians at the moment. Relying on hypothetical future telescope, to replace damaged existing one, is absurdly naïve. Matter of fact is, that keeping Arecibo running is the best way to make sure there is ANY such telescope in the hemisphere in foreseeable future.

    At least until EU or US shake their current apathy, and start building big things again.

      1. CERN (which operates LHC) is an international effort and most of the countries are in EU. But some of CERN members aren’t in EU, like Israel, Norway and UK, and some EU countries aren’t members of CERN.

        Ironically enough, EU (technically the commission) and US are both observers in CERN, and contribute some funds to specific projects.


    1. Overruling minority opinions is not an option anymore these days.. And I can imagine stances are toughened. For a country propagating ‘freedom’ they sure have a history of impeding the freedom of others.

      Consider the forced removal of the inhabitants of the BIOT (where the US base Diego Garcia is now). Supporting dictatorships in the middle east and carving out borders which is still causing bad blood today. The Hawaiians have had a bad deal too in the past.

      Eventually minorities get fed up and draw a line, to here and no further. In this case it sadly impacts a great science project, in many cases it’s just some military thing.

    1. Another reason would be that the people of Puerto Rico should be treated as full citizens if that’s what they want. The only reason there is a US senate is so that small population states can exert an undue influence, some of them use this power to become small welfare states…

      1. Every state that has a population over 1 million should break up into smaller states. Problem solved. Some of those new smaller states would inevitably turn red, but their residents would be happy to finally have a say in state politics. This would give us a more even representation in both the senate and the Electoral College. No amendment needed. ‘Course, we’d have over 300 states, but the more the merrier!

  8. “For pure receiving, China’s FAST is bigger and better. And certainly, we’ve learned a lot about radio telescopes since Arecibo was designed.”
    A more accurate statement is it that is bigger but with different characteristics. It doesn’t have the same spectral range that Arecibo Observatory has just as an example. It has newer reception equipment but not necessarily “better”. A more accurate statement is “it depends on what you are doing”. China has invested a lot but it is fairly obvious they are using it for something very different than the observatory that is in a general state of failure.
    I have heard said that infrastructure directly reflects the state of a civilization.

  9. Clear the site and rebuild on the same spot, with a deformable dish surface and winch system similar to the Chinese FAST site. Also keep the transmitting capability. With the deformable surface that would make it able to transmit farther, with a tighter beam.

    With the age of the existing parts and the damage from having two cables crashing down on it, replacing the old, damaged parts with new copies is going to be like using a patch of unwashed fabric on old pants. The old dish surface parts would need to be taken apart and examined for fractures and other damage that could lead to them failing in the future. Better to put the inspection effort into all new parts.

    Sell the old for scrap or have a metal refinery mix it with new metal. Then it could be said the old dish surface is still there in part.

    1. I’m not sure that a deformable dish is better at all. As I understand it, the Arecibo antenna’s primary reflector was made spherical so that it could be steered without moving the reflector, but that a secondary reflector on the movable platform corrects the spherical aberration inherent in the primary reflector. I could be wrong.

    2. You could take the Swedish fighterplane approach, “We will modernize our first generation SAAB 39 Gripen, but we will not build any new ones”
      They were going to reuse the seat and the pitot tube from the old ones… Hence it wasn’t a completely new plane…

      If you remelt the metal and build a new dish, it is actually kind of a refubished old disc…

  10. “That last hurricane left the island’s power a mess and the fix-up has been a mess too. Would statehood help?”

    No. In fact, it might make things worse (partly) because they would be paying more taxes. Puerto Rico has systemic issues including not enforcing building codes. The reason Hurricanse mess it up so badly? People DIY building houses on unclaimed land below code. Then there’s corruption and their state of finances too.

  11. I’m glad I got to see this several years ago. A Puerto Rico trip was my first real (out of state) vacation with my gf at the time. I didn’t really know much about Arecibo or look into going because I figured my gf would have no interest and we already had lots of other things jammed into the itinerary. She did her own trip research though and figured a nerd like me would be interested, so when we had a rental car for a couple days of the trip we went to Arecibo! The “learning center” was pretty dumbed down, but then again it was meant for the average tourist so it was probably ok in that regard.

    I actually did not know it was a transmitter too! I’m actually learning more about Arecibo now that its been in the news and has increased focus.

  12. I’m sure the NSF already knows this but it is more than just a simple equation of balancing cost and scientific value.

    People know of Arecibo. Outside of the small enlightened community who are interested in such things they don’t know the other telescopes. When it comes time to request funding having something with some “face” recognition is important.

    I think they had better fix it or if not then clear it out and build a new dish on the site and keep the name. Just call it an antenna upgrade, not a replacement. Long live Arecibo.

    They could even keep a few pieces of the original along with maybe whatever outdated receiving equipment they might have in their closets in some out-building and call it a museum. Maybe they can cut the frayed ends off the snapped cables and put those on display for a tour guide to point at and tell the story of the great dish disaster of 2020.

    And of course don’t forget to throw up some posters or something in the museum for every sci-fi movie that ever included Arecibo in it.

  13. Arecibo’s importance is more comprehensive than most of us realize, perhaps.
    It’s not just the construction itself, but also the location, its importance in culture and the spirit.
    Arecibo is also a symbol. All this can’t be substituted by building another random radio telescope, somewhere.
    Also, Arecibo was allowed to be used by individuals.
    For example, when contacting the ISEE-3 probe a few years ago.

    So please let’s stop doing that stupid car analogy or mindless cost/use comparisons.
    Doing so would not do Arecibo any justice, imho.

    1. So let’s have a better car analogy: Some people invest much more money into the restauration of rare vintage cars than an average new car costs. And they do it for a good reason.

  14. I say let it go and build a new one. Yes, this one may still be viable. Yes, it may cost more to build new. However, building new will gain us much more than just the dish itself. It will drive contribution by innovators which will advance our technological skills in the field. We will end up with a more advanced dish and a greater number of people who are knowledgeable about how it works. It will also create STEM jobs and give opportunity to people to use their skills. The value goes far beyond the physical piece of equipment.

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