Friday, October 8, 2010

My (Former) Research Explained: A Cyber-Tour of the Arecibo Observatory

Pretty sweet, huh? Credit
That is the Arecibo Observatory radio telescope the largest telescope of any kind in the world (except for the VLBA which is an interferometer that uses a bunch of telescopes across the globe and some computers to compile all their separate data to make one super image). I spent an entire summer living just off the right side of this photo and I even got to climb up into the dome on top a couple times. It is very impressive and very cool. Let me tell you more about it...

Feel free to look around and when you are ready I'll begin the tour.

This is an aerial view of the telescope and complex. At the very center of the telescope is the dome which is where all the radiowaves from space get reflected into and collected. The telescope itself is a spherical dish which allows it to be stationary on the earth. The dishes that we use for satellite TV are parabolic and must be pointed in the direction of the source, but this dish can collect light from everywhere. There are two more dishes inside the dome that focus the light to be collected. The dome itself is on a track that can move around to keep track of sources as they move through the sky.

Being up there is no joke. I don't remember how far I was from the ground, but it is far. I'm pretty sure that that dome is close to the tallest point in all of Puerto Rico and the telescope is located inland in the mountains. My understanding is that the telescope was built in a natural crater and there wasn't much excavation to be done. The land is made up of ancient volcanic rock and is full of geologically interesting history. There is a path that goes all the way around the dish and you could see fossils in the rock as you walk around the dish.

The path around the dish is something like 1km and would be a nice run multiple times if it weren't so humid there. Despite being a telescope, you are allowed to walk around freely (if you work there) unless they are doing radar experiments. Then you might get fried or something, but they have warning lights and stuff. From that path there are paths that take you to a nearby river (which was super awesome all the time). Along that path was a house that had banana trees, chickens, and cows and I never had any clue how the owner ever got anywhere from their house.

Just to the north of the telescope is the observation deck, where visitors can enjoy a museum and a movie and can check out the telescope by not touching it... haha suckers I got to touch it! The movie was lame (I don't know if they changed it), but we would go up there once a week after hours and use the theater to watch actual movies which was pretty sweet.

If you zoom in on the map you can see the details of the complex. We had a pool, a volleyball court, and a basketball court (my favorite). The students in the REU and visiting scientists lived in cabins on the grounds while all the staff and full time researchers had homes closer to the shore. If you look a little northwest of where the visitor center is you can see our cabins. Those things were perched atop a hugely steep hill that required us to walk 1000's of steps a day to get to and from work. Normally I don't mind the exercise but at the temperatures we experienced each day it was brutal. I didn't get any better at walking those stairs by the way.

Just to the west of the visitor center was where we worked and collected information. Just west from there was the LIDAR facility. This facility was primarily used for doing high atmospheric weather testing and stuff. The REU director did some stuff with micrometeorites that was pretty interesting using the LIDAR facility. His name was Diego and he was the most awesome man I ever met. We formed quite a bond during our time there.

Late at night the students would gather for some booze and a lot of times we would end up on the roof of the LIDAR to do the most spectacular star-gazing I have ever done in my life. It is probably some of the best you could ever do. There was a period where I would see a shooting star in the same part of the sky at the same time of night every night. That must have lasted for about a week or two. From here you could see so much. I even took some great sunset pictures from there. After a heavy afternoon rain, a fog would sweep into the dish area and the view from the LIDAR was amazing. You could see the fog in the entire valley.
I have more pictures, but this is what I could find for now
I'll dig out all my old photos and display the best ones in a slideshow for you all to see. I'll also post my best experiences from the summer and talk about my one bad experience, which was so bad it bled onto others in the program as well. Stay tuned to more exciting adventures from PR!

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