Cornell University

September 23, 1998

Arecibo Observatory survives Hurricane Georges' sweep across Puerto Rico

ARECIBO, Puerto Rico -- Initial information indicates that the massive reflector dish of Arecibo Observatory apparently sustained minimal damage from Hurricane Georges, which swept across Puerto Rico late Monday night, observatory officials report.

In a telephone conversation early Tuesday observatory personnel also indicated that the telescope's newly completed dome apparently escaped without damage. The 15 employees and visitors using the observatory, at the time of the hurricane, are reported safe.

A small number of panels on the telescope's 1,000-foot diameter reflector suffered damage from flying debris. Telephone contact with the observatory was lost late Tuesday morning, and full assessment of any damage is not yet available.

As the eye of the hurricane passed just to the south of the telescope, 15 people remained at the observatory, according to Donald Campbell, associate director of the National Astronomy Ionospheric Center at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., which manages the observatory for the National Science Foundation (NSF). All were "bunkered down" and protected from the hurricane, he said. The observatory has 140 employees and visitors.

There were reports of fallen trees and mud slides around the observatory.

Interestingly, at the time of the hurricane, a group of researchers from Clemson University, Clemson, S.C., and from France were making radar observations of thunderstorms. Instead, they used Arecibo's dish to record observations of high-altitude wind speeds in the hurricane throughout Monday night, using electrical power from an emergency generator.

Although government and communications officials say telephone lines are open to the island, the NAIC and Cornell News Service were not in contact with the observatory, as of Wednesday morning.

The surface of the Arecibo reflector dish is made of 38,800 reflective aluminum panels, covering an area about the size of 26 football fields. Campbell said that only a few panels on the 16,000 square feet of the dish's surface were lost as the hurricane moved through.

The dome above the telescope, which was completed last year, survived the hurricane without damage, Campbell said. The 90-ton, 86-foot diameter dome attached to the end of the 304-foot moveable azimuth arm increases the telescope's ability to observe the farthest reaches of the universe.

Snuggled into a bowl-shaped area in the hills of central Puerto Rico, the radio-radar telescope received a $25 million upgrade in June 1997. It was built in 1963 by the U.S. Air Force under the initiative of Cornell Professor William Gordon and colleagues. Originally, it was intended to study Earth's ionosphere. Today it is used for radio and radar astronomy, as well as atmospheric and ionospheric studies.

The Arecibo Observatory was used to discover the first planets observed outside the solar system, to establish the rotation rate of Mercury and to discover first pulsar in a binary system. The telescope also has played a starring role in two popular films: GoldenEye (1995) and Contact (1997).

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