MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Puerto Rico's north coast is home to the Arecibo Observatory and one of the world's largest radio telescopes. It normally hums 24/7, gathering faint signals from objects in outer space or bouncing radar off asteroids. But as NPR's Scott Neuman reports, Hurricane Maria has knocked the facility offline.
SCOTT NEUMAN, BYLINE: The Arecibo Observatory used to be the kind of place known mostly to scientists. That is until it was the backdrop for the 1997 film "Contact." Actor Jodie Foster played an astronomer whose team intercepts a mysterious signal from deep space.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CONTACT")
MAX MARTINI: (As Willie) I got it. I got it. I'm patched in.
JODIE FOSTER: (As Eleanor Arroway) All right. Let me hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF INDISCERNIBLE NOISE)
NEUMAN: Arecibo is a 1,000-foot dish sitting like a bowl in a giant sinkhole. As the observatory staff sheltered in place, the storm's 100-mile-per-hour winds whipped through the surrounding hills and rattled a huge antenna suspended above the main dish, sending it crashing down. Nicholas White is with the Universities Space Research Association, which helps run the observatory. He says it could have been a lot worse.
NICHOLAS WHITE: The only damage that's confirmed is one of the line feeds from the antenna for one of the radar systems that was lost and that fell and maybe punctured the dish in a few places.
NEUMAN: Arecibo was built in the '60s and has numerous firsts to its credit. It found the first planets around other stars. It was also the first telescope to image an asteroid. It still tracks so-called near-Earth objects that pass uncomfortably close. Lance Benner of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has traveled to Arecibo dozens of times. He says he'd like to see the observatory back online as soon as possible.
LANCE BENNER: Because Arecibo just has unparalleled sensitivity as a radar facility. I mean, it's by far the most sensitive planetary radar in the world.
NEUMAN: Until recently, the aging facility was the world's largest single-dish radio telescope. That's a status it lost to a new instrument in China. And even before Hurricane Maria, its funding was in question. Jim Ulvestad is with the National Science Foundation, which funds the facility. He says it's doing excellent science, but...
JIM ULVESTAD: If you look at the overall sweep of things that we are funding, we do have to make choices, and we can't keep funding everything that's excellent.
NEUMAN: The good news is that most of the telescope's equipment should still work once power is restored. Scott Neuman, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE OCTOPUS PROJECT AND BLACK MOTH SUPER RAINBOW'S "TONY FACE")
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