Puerto Rican scientists, shattered by collapse of Arecibo Observatory, push to rebuild

Génesis Ferrer had dreamed of working in the Arecibo Observatory ever since she first met some of its astrophysicists during a high school trip in Puerto Rico.

After hearing them use terms such as “radiation” and “emission,” Ferrer, 21, said she “just fell in love with the entire idea of being able to understand things so far away.” Like many scientists in the U.S. territory, Ferrer can trace back her interest in astrophysics, biophysics and space to that school trip.

The fourth-year physics student from the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras campus, had recently earned a fellowship from the Puerto Rico NASA Space Consortium to study emissions from red dwarf stars using the giant radio telescope in Arecibo. Because of coronavirus restrictions, Ferrer has been accessing the data she needs from the Arecibo Observatory remotely, hoping she would soon be able to finish her investigation in the place where it all started.

Those hopes faded away Tuesday morning when the Arecibo Observatory collapsed. The telescope’s 900-ton receiver platform and the Gregorian dome — a structure as tall as a four-story building that houses secondary reflectors — fell onto the northern portion of the vast reflector dish more than 400 feet below after the main cables holding up the structures broke overnight.

“I was very sad, very disappointed,” Ferrer told NBC News. “I worked so hard to finally get accepted to work in the Arecibo Observatory. And now that I got accepted, I can’t work in it. I felt very sad, not only individually, but I also saw it as a very sad thing for Puerto Rico and the science in Puerto Rico.”

The Arecibo Observatory was the largest radio telescope in the world and a point of pride for Puerto Ricans, whether they were in science or not. About 90,000 islanders and tourists visited the observatory every year, a boon to the region.

During its almost 57 years in operation, the observatory built with money from the U.S. Department of Defense has been at the forefront of space research — and a crucial training ground for space science students.

In August, the observatory started crumbling after an auxiliary cable snapped, causing damage to the telescope’s dish and the receiver platform that hung above it, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation, the federal agency that owns the observatory. In an attempt to prevent “an uncontrolled collapse” in order to “safely preserve other parts of the observatory that could be damaged or destroyed,” the agency said it began its plan to decommission the telescope in mid-November.

“The NSF was taking a long time to do this because they have a series of protocols they have to follow,” said Abel Méndez, director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico, Arecibo campus, and a planetary astrobiologist. “We thought they had an emergency plan that could speed things up.”

But the cables failed before the agency was able to preserve the telescope.

Dreams to do science in Puerto Rico “faded away”

Arianna Colón, a third-year physics student at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez campus, said she became particularly interested in pursuing a career in astroparticle physics or astrophysics after watching “The Theory of Everything” and learning about Stephen Hawking.

“If my options were limited when we had the Arecibo Observatory, now that it basically disappeared, my chances of being able to stay in Puerto Rico faded away,” Colón told NBC News. “My dream was to stay here and give back to my island.”

Colón had just began working with Méndez on an investigation about the Borisov comet when the cables from the observatory first snapped in August. She started by analyzing some of the data the telescope had already captured, but eventually Colón was going to learn how to use it herself and capture more data for future investigations. But that never happened.

“I was so close and then everything just collapsed,” she said.

Kevin Ortiz, 22, a fourth-year physics student from the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras campus, has been conducting astronomy investigations at the observatory for almost three years.

“It’s a tragedy because we’re seeing our dreams fading away,” Ortiz, who was also working on a new investigation alongside Méndez, said. “I was in total shock — the Arecibo Observatory is an engineering marvel that was designed to last for much longer.”

‘Incalculable’ educational impact, calls for rebuilding

For many in Puerto Rico, the collapse of the Arecibo Observatory was a dark metaphor that reflected the reality of an island that has been in crisis for over a decade. Puerto Ricans have been grappling with the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, as well as Hurricane Maria — the deadliest U.S.-based natural disaster in 100 years which led to the deaths of at least 2,975 people in 2017. More recently, the island faced a string of strong earthquakes that brought down hundreds of structures before the coronavirus pandemic hit the island. Islanders barely remember a time when their lives weren’t marked by hardships.

Against this backdrop, the Arecibo Observatory represented a “gateway to opportunity” for his students, Méndez said.

“Right now, Kevin is applying to grad schools and being able to say ‘I did a scientific publication at the Arecibo Observatory,’ he’ll automatically stand out because not many undergraduate students have the experience of working with world-class instruments,” Méndez said about Ortiz. But Ferrer and Colón, his two other students, “and so many others won’t have that opportunity” anytime soon.

After the National Science Foundation announced its plans to decommission the observatory, more than 140 students and science professionals came together to start the Save the Arecibo Observatory movement on social media.

Puerto Ricans in STEM — a coalition of Puerto Ricans in the island and the mainland working in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math — had joined the movement and helped gather more than 66,000 signatures in less than two weeks for a petition asking the White House to save the observatory after raising awareness through the #SaveTheAO, #WhatAreciboMeansToMe and now #RebuildAreciboObservatory hashtags, Executive Director Ramón Misla said.

Now, the groups are refocusing their efforts on getting help from the U.S. Congress to rebuild the telescope.

“The telescope collapsed but the investigations facility and the visitor’s center is still there. With the appropriate funding, we have a viable path towards reconstruction,” Ortiz said. “The educational impact of the observatory is incalculable, at all levels, from professionals and college students to the high school academy and the elementary schools that visit our center.”

Organizers of the Save the Arecibo Observatory movement created an updated White House petition on Wednesday night to “ask Congress to allocate funding to build a new Arecibo radio telescope with greater capabilities than the previous telescope.”

“We’ve shown that we have the ability to come together,” Misla said. “I believe that the scientific community and the STEM community in general, us coming together, is going to make a difference.”

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