6 February 2018

AAS Board of Trustees Issues Statement on Arecibo Observatory

George Benedict

At its February 2018 meeting, the AAS Board of Trustees approved the following statement regarding Arecibo Observatory and Puerto Rico:

The American Astronomical Society recognizes and applauds the resourcefulness and resilience of the staff of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, home to the Arecibo Observatory, in the wake of the devastation of Hurricane Maria, even as budget uncertainty threatened future operations.

Hurricane Maria’s landfall on 20 September led to the near-total destruction of Puerto Rico's power grid and widespread flooding. The hurricane's impact — economic and human — will be felt for years.

Incredibly, the only substantial damage sustained by the radio telescope’s suspended, 900-ton receiver platform, which sits 150 meters above the 305-meter dish, was the loss of the catwalk floor and the 430 MHz line feed; the five-ton line feed also smashed a few dozen of the dish’s 38,000 panels in its fall.

The story of Arecibo Observatory is only a small piece of the story of Puerto Rico post-Maria, but its significance reaches beyond the astronomical community. Within a week of Maria’s landfall, observatory staff members were taking science data using the Observatory's generators, detecting pulsars even before a cellphone call could be made to San Juan. Some staff acted as first responders, reaching remote towns cut off by flooding before FEMA or the Red Cross could arrive. The Observatory's helipad facilitated delivery of food and other supplies for hard-to-reach hill towns, and its well continues to provide thousands of gallons of clean drinking water every day to staff and people in neighboring communities.

The AAS supports the continued science-focused operations at Arecibo Observatory, which will be ensured by repair of the hurricane damage and the in-process negotiations between NSF and potential partners. In the meantime, we salute our colleagues at the Arecibo Observatory and elsewhere in Puerto Rico for their courage and dedication.

The statement is also now included in our collection of AAS Board of Trustees Resolutions.