Earth’s Closed Eye

Question in the chat box, Maria, and I paraphrase to preserve anonymity — ‘So the Arecibo telescope won’t work any more. Why should we care? There’s lots of other telescopes that could so the same job.‘”

“But profesora, there aren’t. Arecibo is special in many ways. First, it is a very good telescope. That means it has high sensitivity and high resolution. Compare two radio telescopes with different‑size dishes and the same kinds of antennas and everything else. The one with the bigger dish is more sensitive because it can capture more photons. Arecibo’s 300‑meter dish used to be the largest in the world. China activated their FAST instrument five years ago. Its 500‑meter dish should make it more than 200 times as sensitive as Arecibo, but it doesn’t because neither telescope is designed to use the entire dish surface at once except for looking straight up. Their active areas are about the same.”

Is FAST another one of those goofy acronyms?

“Of course. It stands for ‘Five‑hundred‑meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope‘ but in Chinese its name is Tianyan, which means ‘Heaven Eye.’ I think that is more pretty. FAST and Arecibo overlap their wavelength ranges, although FAST can receive some longer wavelengths and Arecibo can receive some shorter ones. Oh, there is also a big Russian radio telescope, RATAN‑600, with an even bigger diameter. But it is a ring, not a disk, so not as sensitive as Arecibo or FAST.”

A ring? Why did they build it that way?

“Because of the other thing you need in a good telescope, resolution. If you have good resolution in an image, you can see points that are very close together. The how‑close limit angle comes from dividing the light wavelength by the dish diameter. The diameter of RATAN’s ring is 600 meters, so RATAN’s resolving power is twice as good as Arecibo’s 300‑meter disk. RATAN doesn’t need to be sensitive, though, because it is used mostly for looking close at the Sun, not at stars and galaxies. That is OK because RATAN is so far north.”

What difference does that make?

“No telescope can see what is below its horizon. RATAN is at 43° north, almost 1400 miles north of Arecibo. It has a good view of the northern sky but cannot see down to the Equator where many asteroids and all the planets are.”

Sorry, Maria, that’s not quite correct. Earth is tilted relative to the orbital plane by 23° so even Arecibo only sees the northern portion of planetary orbits. While I’ve got the mic I’ll add some background on RATAN‑600. RATAN is the acronym for ‘Academy of Sciences Radio Telescope’ in Russian. It was built in the Cold War era when that part of the world was the USSR. Although I don’t believe it’s ever been publicly confirmed, many people think that RATAN‑600‘s original purpose was detection of ICBMs coming in over the North Pole. However, over the decades it has been a productive source of information for the solar physics community. Back to you, Maria.

“That is good to know, profesora. Thank you. So, Arecibo is — was —special because of its sensitivity and its resolution. It is also about 500 miles further south than FAST. But Arecibo has one additional feature that FAST cannot have — radar. Arecibo has high-powered transmitters that can send out terawatt pulses to things in the Solar System that are closer than Saturn. The dish gathers echoes that give us detailed knowledge of those objects. For instance, Arecibo’s radar echoes from Mercury showed us that the planet is not tidally locked to the Sun. We used to think Mercury’s day was 88 days long, like its year, but now we know it rotates in only 59 days.”

Why can’t the Chinese just add transmitters to FAST?

“The Chinese designers gave FAST a light‑weight antenna carriage to hang over its dish. Arecibo’s 900‑ton carriage can handle massive transmitters, but FAST’s cannot. There is one other radio telescope with radar, at Goldstone, California, but it has less than one‑millionth the power of Arecibo’s transmitters. Without Arecibo’s sensitivity, resolution, location and high-powered radar capability we cannot find near‑Earth asteroids on track to hit us.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Author’s note — Early in the morning of 1 December, after I completed last week’s and this post, the National Science Foundation reported that Arecibo’s central instrument platform has fallen onto the dish as a result of further cable failures.
“Vale, nostri servi boni et fidelis”
Farewell, our good and faithful servant.

Arecibo ¡que lástima!

Hello, Astronomy video class. I’ve made room in the syllabus schedule for a quick talk from someone with a personal connection to a timely topic. You may know we’ve lost one of Astronomy’s premier radio telescopes, Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory. I’ve asked Maria to fill us in on the what and the why. If you have a question, type it into your chat window and I’ll relay it to her. Maria, you’re on.”

“Thank you, profesora. Yes, I do know Arecibo because I have worked there. I grew up in Hatillo, a small city on the north coast about half an hour away from the Observatory. My teacher of science in high school, somehow he got me a summer job there. Sometimes I worked in the gift shop, sometimes I helped the guided tours, but my best thing was running errands because then I could visit the science offices and chat with people about what they were doing. There I fell in love with Astronomy and that is why I came here to study.

“When people think of Arecibo they think of the big 300 meter dish, about 1000 feet across. Sharing my screen for you… there. This picture I got from Wikipedia:

The Arecibo Observatory
photo by JidoBG, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

“The installation sits in very rough mountains. They are so rough because they are mostly limestone that slowly dissolves in water. The water seeps in through cracks to attack the rock and make cliffs and holes and caves. The Arecibo observatory is where it is because water eroded a cavern close to the surface. The topmost material fell into the empty space to make a huge round sinkhole like very few other places in the world.”

Question from the chat, Maria. Did the rock actually dissolve into that convenient smooth reflector shape?

“¡Por Dios no! The circular shape, yes, but the sinkhole floor is nearly flat. The dish itself is many aluminum panels fixed to a floating steel grid. Here is a picture Mr Phil Perillat took from beneath the dish. I don’t know Mr Perillat’s title but he is always very busy keeping things running.

“Above you see the grid, five meters or more above the ground. The grid is supported by concrete all around the edges. Coming down from the grid you see cables leading to those round concrete piers. These cables pull the grid down into its curved shape which is actually a piece of a sphere.”

A sphere, not a parabola?

“No, profesora, and that is important. A fixed dish with a parabola shape like most telescope mirrors always would aim straight up. It would see targets at the top of the sky but for only a few minutes as the Earth turns through the day. With a sphere‑shaped dish and the antennas mounted where the center of the sphere would be, then the whole sky is in focus. The scientists aim the telescope by moving the antennas to point at different parts of the dish like you look at different parts of one of those funny mirrors in, sorry I don’t know the word, una casa de la diversión.”

A funhouse.”

“Thank you. The antenna carriage is so complicated because it must look at different parts of the dish. Here you see the carriage:

The Arecibo receiver mounting and dome
Photo by Phil Perillat, National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center

“The antennas point downward from inside that dome. When motors swing the dome along that crescent‑shaped arc, the antennas scan along an arc of the dish. More motors can rotate the arc around that circular track. By swinging and rotating together, the antennas can follow the reflection of any object that moves through the sky.”

All those motors and tracks and antennas must be heavy.”

“Yes, 900 tons hanging 500 feet above the grid. Eighteen cables hold it up. Each is many strands of steel braided together. Compressed air blows through the braids to prevent corrosion, but the storms won out in the end. Three cables have failed and it is too dangerous for repair. So sad.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Author’s note — Early in the morning of 1 December, after I completed this and next week’s posts, the National Science Foundation reported that Arecibo’s central instrument platform had fallen onto the dish as a result of further cable failures.
“Vale, nostri servi boni et fidelis”
Farewell, our good and faithful servant.