A day trip to outer space

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You can get virtually out of this world at Arecibo, Puerto Rico’s world-class observatory. Julia Hammond pays a visit

Do aliens exist? It’s a question that has captured the human imagination for centuries. Science-fiction writers present a plausible case. Movie directors have entertained us with their take on how extraterrestrials might behave. Even governments toy with the idea that far-flung planets might have life-supporting properties, investing billions of dollars in the pursuit of evidence. Can it really be true that we’re not alone in this universe? I set off to check out a place where they don’t just believe in extraterrestrials – they talk to them…

A world away
Science fiction becomes science fact at Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory. It celebrates its 55th birthday this year, and continues to conduct groundbreaking experiments in the field of astrophysics. Three entities run it: SRI International, the Universities Space Research Association and UMET (Puerto Rico’s Metropolitan University). Jointly funded by the US National Science Foundation and NASA, this is the place that studies the stars and planets in our galaxy and beyond. Its work has resulted in maps of Mercury’s ice, the discovery of previously unknown extrasolar planets, and the first-ever image of an asteroid. Perhaps most important of all, astronomers constantly track the path of asteroids that might collide with earth.

My drive from San Juan to the observatory took less than two hours, and the car quickly ate up the kilometres on the busy José de Diego Expressway. As I turned inland, a karstic otherworldly landscape (how apt) loomed large ahead. The last 20 minutes of the journey snaked up leafy country backroads where I was more likely to share the space with horses than horsepower. It was a world away from cosmopolitan San Juan and the beaches of Puerto Rico’s north coast.

Size matters
Pulling into the observatory’s parking lot, a security guard handed me a leaflet. Its message, in English and Spanish, was clear: radio silence is expected. The avoidance of radio frequency interference, it said, was crucial to the observatory’s chances of picking up weak signals during the scientific investigations carried out on the premises. As such, anything creating radio noise – mobile phones, tablets, video cameras and the like – need to be powered down on arrival.

Outside the scientific community, the observatory is famous for its size. At its inception, the receiving dish of its radio telescope was the largest of its kind in the world. Since 2016, the radio telescope has played second fiddle to a 503m Chinese structure unveiled in Guizhou Province. I was impatient to see the dish for myself, and made a beeline for the observation deck as soon as I arrived. It didn’t disappoint. The dish nestles in a natural hollow left by a partially collapsed sinkhole. Positioning it like that eliminated the need to build metal supports, which would have constrained its dimensions. Excavating a brand new hole of this magnitude just wouldn’t have been an option, economically or environmentally.

Leaning against the metal railings, I peered down. The white surface of the dish was muddied with dirt and peppered with holes, tiny as pinpricks from my lofty vantage. Green tendrils snake through the small gaps. Around the perimeter was a latticework metal band, dwarfed by the dish it shields from thermal ground radiation. Behind it, as far as the eye could see, stretch tropical forest carpeting the hilly terrain. High above is the radio telescope itself, suspended from a cluster of cables and beams housing what’s surely the most vertiginous walkway in the whole of Puerto Rico. I felt my heart begin to race.

Getting the lowdown
I’d registered for the VIP tour option without asking too many questions about what it might entail. I’ve no head for heights at all, and prayed that I hadn’t just signed up to be harnessed and taken far beyond my comfort zone.

In the event, the VIP tour was reassuringly tame, offering a close-up look at the dish from ground level. From this angle, the perimeter fence became a towering structure that put the mammoth size of the dish into perspective. Meanwhile, a guide dished the dirt about a Hollywood star who had been as cowardly as I was when it came to scaling the gantry.

When we returned to the visitor centre, my guide recommended I watch the movie showing in the auditorium to get the lowdown on the science behind the set. Even for someone with no technical background, it was pretty impressive stuff.

Surviving the storm
The 2017 hurricane season left Puerto Rico reeling. Hurricane Irma skirted to the north in early September but, just two weeks later, Hurricane Maria barrelled through, wreaking havoc. That deadly storm all but destroyed the electricity grid island-wide and left Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents without power, and many without drinking water. Yet miraculously the dish and telescope sustained only minor damage.

Arecibo Observatory Director Francisco Cordova told me: “Every person on the island was impacted by this historic weather event, and our staff had to deal with incredibly challenging situations ranging from shortages of power, water, food, gas and gasoline, to limited access to healthcare facilities and hazardous roads.”

Electricity was restored to the observatory in December, though staff had been able to resume day-to-day recording of data within a week of the storm passing. The road leading to the observatory was cleared of debris, though makeshift wooden props held up power cables for a while.

“Immediately after the hurricane, the observatory team supported the community by clearing up main roads, providing 14,000 gallons of potable water per day on average and distributing food and bottled water that was provided by FEMA and the Coast Guard to the surrounding communities in the towns of Arecibo, Lares and Utuado,” Cordova told me.

Making contact?
It should come as no surprise that outreach was such a priority to the team. After all, the observatory’s other claim to fame is its Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence programme. In 1974, as part of their work with SETI, astronomers sent what is now commonly referred to as the ‘Arecibo message’ – the first communication sent from earth into space, a simple pictorial missive beamed to the M13 globular star cluster.

If you’ve seen the film Contact, that may sound familiar. In the movie, the scientist played by Jodie Foster discovers proof of extraterrestrial life and, as a consequence, is chosen to make first contact. The similarity is no accident. The film is adapted from a book by astronomer Carl Sagan, who himself was one of the team that sent the Arecibo message.

But if you’re wondering whether anyone (or anything) out there replied, you’ll need to be patient. It will take 21,000 light years for the message to reach its destination, and just as long for a response to return. If humans aren’t the only intelligent life forms in the universe, we still have an interminable wait to find out who’s sharing it with us.

Galactic games
Like Puerto Rico in general post-hurricane, the observatory’s visitor centre is reopen for business. Andy Ortiz, Director of the Science and Visitor Centre, reckons that’s great news. Whatever your age and level of scientific understanding, he says, there’s fun to be had messing around with Arecibo’s interactive exhibits.

After playing around for an afternoon, I agreed with him. Dragging myself away from a wall of meteorite fragments, I found I was rather good at a kinetic game in which I had to become a radar beam to track asteroids using only the motion of my body. Think of it as a kind of Wii-Fit for space nerds.

I was less successful when it came to balancing on the centre’s human pulsar exhibit, designed to demonstrate how a collapsing star spins faster as it contracts. I climbed on and got it spinning. In my head I’d performed a perfect triple salchow, though in reality I dismounted with all the grace of a staggering drunk. It was time to leave, though there was just enough time to grab a bag of space ice cream and a star map from the shop on the way out.

As spring rolls into summer, the Arecibo Observatory is the perfect place to wait out any passing showers that might see you fleeing the beach. But take my advice: don’t save it for a rainy day, in case you don’t have one. This Caribbean attraction punches well above its weight. It’s truly out of this world.

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