Articles on the National Geographic and Space.com websites report that scientists and Amateur Radio operators have confirmed that Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory came through Hurricane Maria largely intact but “with some significant damage.” Universities Space Research Association (USRA), which helps to operate the Observatory, said it learned via “short wave radio contact” that staff and family members sheltering at Arecibo are safe.
“The major structures, including the 300-meter telescope, are intact, though suffered some damage when the atmospheric radar line feed broke off, and falling debris from it punctured the dish in several places,” USRA reported on its website. “Also, a separate 12-meter dish used as a phase reference for Very Long Baseline Interferometry was lost.”
Observatory officials are still assessing the damage, but Jim Breakall, WA3FET, of Penn State, told ARRL that the 96-foot line feed antenna at 430 MHz is “historically the key piece to the observatory.” It’s also the antenna that he and others have used for Amateur Radio moonbounce activities from Arecibo. The Observatory is home to KP4AO.
“To hear that this 10,000-pound key piece to the Observatory fell and hit the 1,000-meter dish is just a huge shock,” Breakall said Saturday. “This antenna was connected to the 2.5 million W 430-MHz radar transmitter that was a key to ionospheric experiments. It is a great loss for sure.”
Angel Vazquez, WP3R — the Observatory’s telescope operations manager — was among the only radio amateurs able to pass along any information; among those he contacted was Princeton University professor and Nobel Laureate Joe Taylor, K1JT. Vazquez is using a generator that, Breakall told ARRL, was not working very well. “Many others have heard about all of this and have come to help relay messages to loved ones and friends to let people know they are okay,” Breakall added.
Breakall said he’s less concerned to learn that his own Amateur Radio contest station, built on a hill on his 12-acre farm not far from the Observatory, was destroyed by Hurricane Maria. “Angel said it is totally destroyed,” he said. “While this is sad for me and others, my concern is with the safety and health of many friends and the people of Puerto Rico in General. This is my second home, and many of the people there I treat as my brothers and sisters.”
USRA has reported that the access road to the Observatory is covered with debris and impassable.
The National Geographic article said that the Arecibo’s staff had begun to prepare the day before Maria arrived on September 20, but power went down and, not long afterward, telephone service. Power is reported to be out across much of Puerto Rico.
Amateur Radio may still be the only reliable communication link with the Commonwealth. “It was reported that Amateur Radio seemed to be the only communications that were operational and that was somewhat limited, as many 2 meter repeater systems were still not operational,” Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network (SATERN) National Liaison Bill Feist, WB8BZH, said in a SATERN update today. “There is no operational public water system, and many local roads are impassable although some major roads have been cleared.”
Breakall told ARRL that he’s worried about what might happen in the weeks and months ahead. “I just hope that desperation does not set in, and things get out of hand there,” he said. “It is going to be very tough.”