Legacy of shattered alien-seeking Arecibo telescope will live on for millions of years

The Arecibo Observatory radio telescope in Puerto Rico, which made Earth’s first attempt to contact aliens, shaped pioneering cosmic research for nearly six decades. Its collapse in December last year, preceded by two cable failures and the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) decision to decommission and dismantle the telescope, marked the end of an era. 

Nevertheless, Arecibo leaves behind a rich legacy of scientific discovery spanning 57 years, and data collected prior to the telescope’s demise will continue to inform the study of asteroids, planets and distant galaxies, researchers recently reported. 

Scientists outlined Arecibo’s enduring contributions to radio astronomy in a presentation on March 19 at the 52nd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC), held virtually this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The presenters wrote that Arecibo left an “indelible mark on planetary science, radio astronomy, and space and atmospheric sciences,” and they expressed the sorrow surrounding its collapse in a wistful haiku: “Six decades’ service / Arecibo’s telescope / Lost, not forgotten.”

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Constructed in 1963, the 1,000-food-wide (305 meters) Arecibo telescope dish was the biggest and most powerful radio telescope in the world. It broadcast Earth’s first attempt to contact extraterrestrials — the “Arecibo Message” — in 1974, beaming a pictorial missive into space that included simple images of a human; the Arecibo telescope; the formula for DNA; a diagram of our solar system; and some of the chemicals for life, according to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute. 

Arecibo helped astronomers measure the rotations of Mercury and Venus for the first time. It detected the first known exoplanet orbiting a pulsar, in 1990. The observatory scrutinized Saturn’s rings and mapped the surface of the moon. It even verified Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity and inferred the presence of gravitational waves, the researchers reported at LPSC.