Sunday, February 2, 2014

Lost at Arecibo Observatory

Puerto Rico is famous for white sand beaches, world-class snorkeling, pro-surfing, rainforests...and a really big telescope? Arecibo Observatory features the world's largest radio telescope (featured in the films Contact and GoldenEye) a visit is an interesting break from the sun and surf sites of Puerto Rico. Areribo actually exceeded my expectations in a few unexpected ways. I expected Arecibo to be located deep in Puerto Rico's mountainous interior.  I expected the telescope to be big. It was the journey to Arecibo observatory and the beauty of the telescope that was much greater than I had expected.

What is a Radio Telescope? 
Before visiting Arecibo, I had some experience in radio telemetry. I worked several summers at PARI Observatory, an old NASA tracking station in North Carolina, that featured two giant 26 meter radio telescopes. Radio telescopes collect radio waves from the deepest corners to the universe. The bigger the dish, in theory, means more data can be collected. Astronomers analyze the data to better understand the universe. My time at PARI (which is tucked away in a remote part of the Blue Ridge Mountains) taught me that radio observatories need to built in areas far away from electromagnetic interference. In other words, Arecibo's remote location and ban on cell phone use is necessary. But enough science.

What to Expect 
I'm not going to lie to you; Arecibo Observatory is off the beaten path. Despite hosting thousands of tourists every year, there is no direct route to the site. The roads to the observatory are narrow, curvy, and might cause motion sickness. Despite dozens of signs to help direct us, my wife and I were never quite sure if we were on the right road (especially when we had to swerve to avoid hitting a horse hanging out on the road). Though we found our way to the observatory without major mishap, we did get lost on the way back.

At the front gate, we were directed to turn our cell phones to off/airplane mode and told to park in a lot below the visitor center. I've read complaints about the steep walk from the parking lot up to the visitor's center, but it's not difficult. Once we paid and were inside the visitors center, there were several exhibits on astronomy and radio telemetry that weren't all that interesting. Next we directed to the theater to watch a short video that explained the basic operation and history of Arecibo. The video was actually pretty cool.

Once the video was over, a guide took us out to the telescope viewing platform. The 305 meter dish must be seen in person to comprehend it's massive size. It's beauty took me by surprise. Much like other man-made wonders like the Empire State Building, St. Louis Arch, Golden Gate Bridge, and Hoover Dam, I left with Arecibo in awe.

Just the Basics
  • Website:
  • Directions: A somewhat confusing map is provided by Arecibo on this page
  • Hours: 9am-4pm, closed most major holidays 
  • Cost: Adults $10, Kids and Seniors $6 
  • Advice: If you are prone to motion sickness, you might want to consider taking medication before the drive.