• The Star Staff

Governor signs executive order to rebuild Arecibo Observatory

By John McPhaul


Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced signed an executive order on Monday that establishes the reconstruction of the Arecibo Observatory as public policy of the Puerto Rico government.

In a message from La Fortaleza through Facebook, Vázquez emphasized the importance of the Arecibo Observatory as a center for scientific research of global impact for the past 57 years.

The governor also said the observatory has encouraged thousands of Puerto Ricans to study science.

In addition, the place has been a tourist destination for decades and has put the name of Puerto Rico, and especially Arecibo, on the global map.

As part of the executive order, $8 million is allocated to help rebuild a “much more modern” observatory, the governor said.

Vázquez pointed out that the Arecibo Observatory had deteriorated over the years, culminating in its collapse on Dec. 1.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), an independent entity of the United States government, owns and is responsible for maintaining the observatory facilities, but it had been cutting the budget assigned to the observatory for years. The NSF had in its custody about $14 million, of which it used about $3 million, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided to make repairs and replace generators after the passage of hurricanes Irma and Maria across Puerto Rico in September 2017.

“At that time [on Dec. 1] we took the initiative as part of the public policy of the Government of Puerto Rico to assist with all agencies,” the governor said. “Then the efforts were going to be directed to the reconstruction of the Observatory. So that it continues to be the place not only of scientific interest, of advancement, where many students have advanced in their different studies, but also of tourism.”

“So today [Monday] for me is a great opportunity, a great day because we have achieved a large part of the commitments we made” to help rebuild the observatory, she said.

“We had previously indicated to the National Science Foundation our intention to help this educational, scientific and tourist attraction center, once they announced that it would be closed,” Vázquez said. “But once the tragedy occurred, we redirected our efforts in order to work with the cleanup of the place, the residence and the reconstruction.”

On Dec. 1, the last cables that held what is known as the Gregorian dome failed, causing the 900-ton platform to crash onto the 1,000 feet (305 meters)-in-diameter plate, causing greater damage.

Almost a month earlier, on Nov. 6 at around 7:39 p.m., a main cable failed at the observatory, causing damage to the installation’s main plate.

Unlike the auxiliary cable that failed in the same installation on Aug. 10, this main cable did not come out of its socket, but instead broke and fell onto the reflector dish below, causing additional damage to that dish and other nearby cables. as reported on Nov. 8.

On Nov. 19, the NSF announced that it was going to dismantle the dish, since it did not consider it possible to repair it safely.

The Arecibo Observatory was established in 1963 but had been modernized and expanded on several occasions, so it did not lose validity in research.

The observatory has been instrumental in investigating asteroids, particularly those approaching Earth.

The scientific facility was the leading research center in the world for determining the shape and size of asteroids, what they are made of, their speed and their path.

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