Nestled away in the wooded outskirts of Arecibo, Puerto Rico sits a gigantic, man-made crater. It’s not actually a crater, but a radio telescope called Arecibo Observatory built in the sixties by Cornell University in collaboration with the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory.
Unlike optical telescopes which gather images using visible light waves, radio telescopes use low frequency radio waves and the telescope needs to be tucked away in the woods so that it doesn’t receive interference from nearby radio and television signals. Puerto Rico was chosen as the location because it is near the equator, allowing maximum ability to study celestial bodies.
The Arecibo Observatory looks like a giant crater because it utilizes a spherical reflector, a concave mirror that focuses light rays into one focal point for optimal focus on one image. However, there is a whole lot more to this contraption than the crater-like reflector. Once the image is collected by the reflector, it is picked up by the receiver hanging above the dish by cables that are connected to three concrete towers. The receiver moves about and rotates above the spherical reflector in order to pick up different signals from different directions. This is the largest telescope of its kind, and it has been used in various fascinating scientific projects and discoveries.
Operation of the telescope began in 1964, and it has contributed to many scientific breakthroughs since then: from finding evidence of neutron stars, to discovering various pulsars and planets outside of our solar system, to finding molecules that are precursors for life in a faraway galaxy. The most famous project that the Arecibo Observatory has contributed to is SETI, or Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. As the names suggests, this project is dedicated to searching for signs of life or intelligence in outer space, using data collected from the Arecibo telescope. The subproject, SETI@home, allows internet volunteers to help analyze the massive quantities of data.
While nothing so far has been found that points to the existence of extraterrestrial life, this project provokes intriguing questions. Can Earth really be the only planet in the entire universe that contains living organisms? If extraterrestrial life does exist, will we ever be able to come into contact with it? Are there beings out there that are more intelligent and powerful than we are? Have we already been observed by some other alien species, the way we are attempting to observe them with this telescope?
Questions like these are sure to make the spine tingle, and have in fact already been asked by certain movies that have featured the Arecibo telescope. The most notable of these was Contact in 1997, which stars Jodie Foster as a woman who discovers evidence of extraterrestrial life at the Arecibo Observatory while working for SETI and tries to make contact with it. The telescope was also featured in the James Bond movie GoldenEye, an episode of The X-Files, the TV program Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, and various novels.
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