Arecibo Diaries: The Romance, Drama, and Normality of the Observatory

Apr. 28, 2003
by Seth Shostak - Senior Astronomer

Do you remember that opening episode of The X-Files second season? For some reason, the principals had to hack their way into the Arecibo Observatory. The facility had been closed down (funding problems, no doubt), and was decaying in the undergrowth. The observing building was a forlorn structure, strangled by tentacles of aggressive vegetation. It felt like Indiana Jones and the Lost Telescope.

Its a romantic image, and one thats apparently widespread. A few years ago, a television production company came to Arecibo to tape a segment on SETI, and upon arrival in Puerto Rico they booked a jeep for me to ride onto the site as the cameras rolled. They figured that to show up for work probably involved machetes and the ability to lift fallen tree trunks from a dirt path.

It doesnt, of course. Yes, you can use a jeep to get to the Observatory if thats your vehicular bent. You can also use a stretch limo. The roads are paved, and trunk-free. There are thousands of tons of steel and aluminum, and countless yards of concrete in this telescope. That stuff didnt get here by mule on a rutted road.

Its Americas gothic view of science that conjures up such misperceptions. Our archetypical image of researchers is that theyre lonely, gnarly old guys toiling away in damp, stone-walled basements, festooned with sparking Jacobs Ladders. Well, there are about 140 employees at Arecibo plus a half-dozen SETI Institute folks, and none, Im gratified to note, are gnarly. The walls are dry, and open sparks are verboten they would cause egregious radio interference.

Arecibo is a big, world-class research instrument, and a self-contained campus. Its only a half-hour drive to the mall downtown, but I almost never go. The cabins, the cafeteria, the library (as impressive as that in any universitys astronomy department) are all within a few minutes walk of the observing room. Life and work become as entwined as the snakes on a caduceus.

Thats not to say that theres no romance, no drama here. There is, despite the modern equipment and the gnarl-free, highly skilled staff. For the last week the skies have clogged each afternoon with dark grey clouds riding in from below Hispaniola. At about three oclock they break open with rain, and an impatient torrent descends on the Observatory. Thunder caroms off the limestone hills, and lightning occasionally disrupts the power. This triggers an observing room claxon not unlike the dive alarm in movie submarines. Outside, the curtain of water is so thick that the telescope disappears from view, even though the edge of the dish is a scant few hundred feet beyond the control room windows. This scene is unlike any Ive experienced at an observatory.

But theres another kind of drama quieter, but just as intense. Observing. The Project Phoenix monitoring equipment is in a small space adjacent to the main control room. Compared to the bridge of the Enterprise, its unimposing. There are three Formica-clad tables, some Sun work stations, a collection of flat-panel monitors, and a small herd of blue roll-chairs. My shift is the first half of the night, and Im usually joined by Tom Kilsdonk and Mike Davis. Most of the Observatory personnel, who have spent the day keeping this remarkable place humming, are gone. The observing room turns quiet and warm under the yellow light of incandescent bulbs (conventional institutional fluorescents, like Jacobs Ladders, would produce disruptive static.)

We fall into the reassuring familiarity of routine. I normally log the observations, while Tom pokes the software and Mike reviews the observing statistics. The computers, silent servants, relentlessly paint the screens with radio spectra. Candidate signals those requiring follow-up scrutiny appear every few minutes. As in the past, we check the best of these using the 250-foot Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank, England. Poring step-by-step through these radio squeals is like sorting through the dregs in a gold miners pan. Jodrell Bank, in particular, is tormented by abundant terrestrial interference, and the spectral plots from England are often covered with so much signal hair that they look like Chia Pets.

The software is undeterred by the interference, and manages to quickly sift out the dreck. Its a hi-tech walk up the Blue Nile, a Lewis and Clark-like expedition into the unknown west. As it picks a path through the forest of signals, it occurs to me that this system this nimble construction of software and electronics is the real Indiana Jones, the true wielder of the machete.