ARECIBO, Puerto Rico -- Initial information indicates that the massivereflector dish of Arecibo Observatory apparently sustained minimal damagefrom Hurricane Georges, which swept across Puerto Rico late Monday night,observatory officials report.
In a telephone conversation early Tuesday observatory personnel alsoindicated that the telescope's newly completed dome apparently escapedwithout damage. The 15 employees and visitors using the observatory, atthe time of the hurricane, are reported safe.
A small number of panels on the telescope's 1,000-foot diameter reflectorsuffered damage from flying debris. Telephone contact with the observatorywas lost late Tuesday morning, and full assessment of any damage is not yetavailable.
As the eye of the hurricane passed just to the south of the telescope, 15people remained at the observatory, according to Donald Campbell, associatedirector of the National Astronomy Ionospheric Center at Cornell Universityin Ithaca, N.Y., which manages the observatory for the National ScienceFoundation (NSF). All were "bunkered down" and protected from thehurricane, he said. The observatory has 140 employees and visitors.
There were reports of fallen trees and mud slides around the observatory.
Interestingly, at the time of the hurricane, a group of researchers fromClemson University, Clemson, S.C., and from France were making radarobservations of thunderstorms. Instead, they used Arecibo's dish to recordobservations of high-altitude wind speeds in the hurricane throughoutMonday night, using electrical power from an emergency generator.
Although government and communications officials say telephone lines areopen to the island, the NAIC and Cornell News Service were not in contactwith the observatory, as of Wednesday morning.
The surface of the Arecibo reflector dish is made of 38,800 reflectivealuminum panels, covering an area about the size of 26 football fields.Campbell said that only a few panels on the 16,000 square feet of thedish's surface were lost as the hurricane moved through.
The dome above the telescope, which was completed last year, survived thehurricane without damage, Campbell said. The 90-ton, 86-foot diameter domeattached to the end of the 304-foot moveable azimuth arm increases thetelescope's ability to observe the farthest reaches of the universe.
Snuggled into a bowl-shaped area in the hills of central Puerto Rico, theradio-radar telescope received a $25 million upgrade in June 1997. It wasbuilt in 1963 by the U.S. Air Force under the initiative of CornellProfessor William Gordon and colleagues. Originally, it was intended tostudy Earth's ionosphere. Today it is used for radio and radar astronomy,as well as atmospheric and ionospheric studies.
The Arecibo Observatory was used to discover the first planets observedoutside the solar system, to establish the rotation rate of Mercury and todiscover first pulsar in a binary system. The telescope also has played astarring role in two popular films: "GoldenEye" (1995) and "Contact"(1997).
Materials provided by Cornell University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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