Planetary Radio • Dec 02, 2020

Observatory Director Francisco Córdova on the Devastating Loss of Arecibo

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On This Episode

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Bill Nye

Chief Executive Officer for The Planetary Society

Francisco cordova

Francisco Córdova

Director, Arecibo Observatory

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Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society

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Mat Kaplan

Planetary Radio Host and Producer for The Planetary Society

The 900-ton instrument platform suspended high above the giant Arecibo dish crashed downward in the early morning hours of December 1st. Host Mat Kaplan had recorded a conversation with the leader of the observatory just hours before the disaster. You’ll hear it here, along with a reflection on the magnificent radio telescope by Bill Nye, and further comments by Planetary Society Chief Scientist Bruce Betts. We’ve also got space headlines and a brand-new prize for a brand-new space trivia contest.

Damaged Arecibo Observatory
Damaged Arecibo Observatory This image of Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico captured in November 2020 shows a large gash in the main dish. University of Central Florida
Arecibo Observatory telescope collapse
Arecibo Observatory telescope collapse Damage sustained at the Arecibo Observatory 305-meter telescope. University of Central Florida
Sunset at Arecibo
Sunset at Arecibo Taken on October 29, 2013, at the end of a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the world's largest single radio telescope. Nadia Drake / Wired

Related Links

Trivia Contest

This week's prizes:

The brand new Planetary Society baseball cap, available from the Chop Shop Planetary Society store.

This week's question:

How many aluminum panels are in the Arecibo dish, the main reflector?

To submit your answer:

Complete the contest entry form at https://www.planetary.org/radiocontest or write to us at [email protected] no later than Wednesday, December 9th at 8am Pacific Time. Be sure to include your name and mailing address.

Last week's question:

How many of the 88 IAU-defined modern constellations have “dog” in their name? It will be “dog” in Latin, and we’re talking about domestic dogs, not foxes, wolves, or werewolves.

Winner:

The winner will be revealed next week.

Question from the 18 November space trivia contest:

Mars Odyssey is the longest continuously active spacecraft orbiting another world. What spacecraft is the second longest continuously active spacecraft orbiting another world?

Answer:

The European Space Agency’s Mars Express is the second longest, continuously active spacecraft orbiting another world.

Transcript

Mat Kaplan: A tragedy for science at Arecibo. We'll talk with the observatory director this week on Planetary Radio. Welcome, I'm Mat Kaplan of The Planetary Society, with more of the human adventure across our solar system and beyond. You've probably heard the news, the great radio telescope at Arecibo in Puerto Rico is no more. The 900 ton instrument platform suspended by cables high above the giant dish fell to its ruin in the early morning on December 1st. No one was injured but any hope of salvaging the invaluable equipment has probably been lost.

Mat Kaplan: It was just hours before that I had recorded a conversation with Francisco Cordova, Director of the observatory. That was after two cables had already failed, and after the National Science Foundation, which owns the facility, decided it must be decommissioned. You'll hear that there were still some hope when I spoke to Francisco and hope is still alive. You'll also hear about the spectacular legacy of this unique instrument that has revealed so much and has played a role in the research conducted by so many astronomers and others.

Mat Kaplan: Planetary Society CEO, Bill Nye, will open our special coverage with his own reflection on Arecibo. First, though, we must take a minute to congratulate China. It's Chang'e 5 lander successfully touchdown on the moon just hours before the loss of Arecibo. By the time you hear this, the spacecraft may already be collecting the two kilograms of sample material it will return to Earth. It's a complex mission and some of the most difficult steps remain. But, so far, so good.

Mat Kaplan: There's more space news and the most recent edition of our weekly newsletter, The Downlink. You can even hear the soothing sounds of interplanetary space. Okay, there's no sound in the void, but one of the microphones on the Perseverence Mars rover was activated on route and picked up some of the spacecraft's own appropriately eerie hum. You'll find it and much more planetary.org/downlink.

Mat Kaplan: Bill, thank you for joining me on very short notice on what is really a pretty tragic day for astronomy, for science. We've lost a major tool for learning about the universe.

Bill Nye: Yeah, and it's a piece of history too. Everybody, the Arecibo Observatory is a central receiver, I guess was suspended by cables, all tension members for you structural engineering buffs, and they failed catastrophically, and the thing fell down onto the dish. I'm heartbroken. The place was amazing in a couple of ways. First of all, visually, or as a place to visit, that anybody thought this would work, and could build such an enormous instrument.

Bill Nye: The waveguides, Mat, these amazingly smooth, perfectly machined metal tubes, that microwaves, radar waves go down. They don't go through wires like conductors, this is electromagnetic radiation bouncing off the inside of these perfectly made tubes, those alone are dramatic. Then the size of the dish is just dramatic, and the historical idea... It's in the movie, Contact, it's in GoldenEye, it's just an amazing thing. But then the discoveries that were made with it about asteroids whose names and letters you would probably recognize if you're really into asteroids.

Bill Nye: My heart goes out to everybody, and furthermore, the economy of Puerto Rico is affected by this. It's frustrating. It's all ruined. So mad, I'm so old. How old are you? I'm so old, that Dale Corson signed my diploma at the engineering school at Cornell, and he was one of the leading guys that developed the idea of Arecibo, and people, if you'd never went there, I'm sure it will become a historic site.

Bill Nye: My goodness, man, they took a valley, an enormous valley made of limestone, carved it out smoothly, mounted this giant dish thing in there and hung a receiver over the whole thing on these massive cables. You say, well, where'd they get the concrete to build the massive towers to hold up the massive cables? They made it out of the limestone that they ground up to shape the valley. Oh, my goodness, it was visionary. I think maybe part of the problem, the heartbreak is it was a Cold War thing. Part of its mission, I'm pretty sure was to listen for electromagnetic pulses, big strong radio waves from nuclear explosions on the other side of the world in the Soviet Union at that time.

Bill Nye: I won't say it was built in temporary fashion, but it was, let's get it done, ad hoc, and then after 50 years and a bunch of hurricanes, the thing got fatigued. Everybody, fatigue, is when the load reverses when it's... The cable's going up and down. I got a wonder, Mat, where the extra hurricanes that move slowly across the island, did the extra hurricanes induced by climate change, did they lead also to the collapse of this thing?

Mat Kaplan: They couldn't have helped.

Bill Nye: Yeah. The idea is that with something this large, you could bounce radar waves off of asteroids, and characterize them, get some information about how they spin, whether they're ice or rocks, whether they're a rubble pile or a solid object. This is quite a loss. I don't really have a vision about how it's going to be replaced with all the fiscal constraints and the pandemic, Mat. I just don't know. The biggest radio telescope complimentary to Arecibo is in China. If you're a Cold War international competition kind of thinker, that's something to consider. Oh, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Thank you for asking, mat.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah, thank you, Bill, again on short notice for joining this-

Bill Nye: What short notice? This is the day in history, come on.

Mat Kaplan: It is, yeah. Planetary Society CEO, Bill Nye. My uninterrupted, in depth conversation with Arecibo Director, Francisco Cordova is just ahead.

Jennifer Vaughn: Hi, this is Jennifer Vaughn, The Planetary Society's Chief Operating Officer. 2020 has been a year like no other. It challenged us, changed us and helped us grow. Now, we look forward to 2021 with many reasons for help. Help us create a great start for this promising new year at planetary.org/planetaryfund. When you invest in the Planetary Fund, your year-in gift will be matched up to $100,000, thanks to a generous member. Your support will enable us to explore worlds, defend Earth and find life elsewhere across the cosmos. Please learn more and then donate today planetary.org/planetaryfund. Thank you.

Mat Kaplan: Visiting Arecibo has always, always been one of my goals. There's no telling now when that will be possible. It was midday on November 30th, when the observatories director and I talked, the news was bad enough after the August 10th failure of one long cable followed on November 6th, when an even more important one broke. Little did we know that the worst was still to come.

Mat Kaplan: I hope you'll agree that my conversation with civil engineer and Puerto Rican native son, Francisco Cordova holds up very well, especially those portions of it that review the enormous contributions made by the great dish, and why it is worth rebuilding or replacing. Francisco spent a number of years at Boeing as a senior manager, before taking over the observatory.

Mat Kaplan: I should explain a couple of things he'll mention. Arecibo was one of very few facilities that was capable of using its enormous transmitting power to heat the ionosphere. This enabled research that has helped us understand the behavior of plasma in that upper layer of our atmosphere. You'll also hear him refer to the Gregorian upgrade of the facility. James Gregory was a Scottish contemporary of Isaac Newton, who designed a type of reflecting telescope. That design now called Gregorian, in his honor, was the basis of a substantial upgrade to Arecibo in the mid-1990s.

Mat Kaplan: Francisco Cordova, thank you so much for joining us on Planetary Radio. I only wish that the circumstances and our topic was a happier one. But we are very happy to have you join us to talk about what has happened, about the legacy of this magnificent instrument, and what you hope will be happening as we head into the coming years. Again, thank you.

Francisco Cordova: No, absolutely, and again, thank you for the invitation. I'm happy to share some of the experiences that we've had here recently or before that. I think there's certainly a lot to talk about. Again, I really appreciate the invitation.

Mat Kaplan: Oh, you bet. Our boss at The Planetary Society, CEO, Bill Nye, he talks with pride about the role of his alma mater, Cornell University in the creation of the observatory. He and all of us at the society want to express our condolences to you, your staff and all the researchers who depended on this great tool. It is at least so good To know that no one has been hurt through all of this, that must be a relief to you as well.

Francisco Cordova: Absolutely. The safety of our staff is definitely our priority, and it has always been our priority and will continue to be. From that perspective, we do feel a sense of relief in the fact that most of these issues that we've had with cable failures and such, haven't really resulted in anybody getting hurt, and again, that's our priority.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah, thank goodness. Were you at the facility when either of these breaks happened?

Francisco Cordova: No, I was not. Actually, very few folks have been here. Both of these breaks have happened fairly late, either in the middle of the night, or in the late evening. At the observatory, we have about 130 staff members here. Certainly, this year has been a special one with with all the COVID issues and constraints.

Mat Kaplan: Oh, yeah.

Francisco Cordova: We probably have about half the staff working remotely these days. That being said, we do have a skeleton crew here during the night that includes a telescope operator, and our safety personnel. There are certain scientists that do stay overnight to support a particular type of observation, if needed. But typically, during those times, we'll only have maybe, five to eight staff members on site.

Francisco Cordova: I was not here for either of those failures. Certainly, I was called pretty early in the morning, after the first one happened.

Mat Kaplan: Were any of those staff on duty, were any of them out there at the focus of the great dish, in that amazing structure?

Francisco Cordova: No. This is such a massive structure. We can talk numbers to get an idea, it's 1.8 million pounds in the platform, the suspended structure. It's 305 meters in diameter. You talk those numbers, and they sound big, but you can't really absorb it until you've seen it on how bit it really is. From an operations perspective, we run operations out of the control room, which is away from the primary reflector area. Then the security personnel, also, is way from that area. Actually, we do searches around the dish to make sure that there's nobody in that area before we do any high power transmission or any sort of thing like that.

Francisco Cordova: But no, we didn't have anybody in the area. We did have operators on site, and we did have our security staff, but we didn't have anybody else in the general vicinity, which was good news.

Mat Kaplan: Probably a good thing.

Francisco Cordova: Yeah, absolutely.

Mat Kaplan: Just minutes ago, I was interviewing Michael Hecht, I think you know each other, of MIT's Haystack Observatory.

Francisco Cordova: Absolutely.

Mat Kaplan: It's a conversation that will be on an upcoming episode of our show. He shared his shock and sadness about Arecibo. He asked me to extend his condolences as well. But he also told me about the collaborative work that was underway, and really what sounded like heroic efforts by members of your staff to save some data. My guess is that this was probably not the only example of heroic action that has happened since that first break on August 10th.

Francisco Cordova: Oh, absolutely. I think everybody knows the observatory. I think it's a historic facility, it's an icon of science for for the entire world. But the true value of the facilities in the staff. I've never worked with a more dedicated group of folks. They are fantastic, and I am extremely proud of everything that they have been able to accomplish, especially in this last couple of years with so many challenges that we've had. First Hurricane Maria in 2017. Then we had other smaller hurricanes. Before then we were going through an environmental impact statement evaluation by NSF that they were actually considering decommissioning the facility. We managed to pull through that, then we got into a rash of earthquakes earlier this year, followed by a pandemic. It seems like just a never ending rash of issues for the facility, unfortunately, and we've managed to get through the majority of them until we had these cable failures that were just so unexpected that unfortunately couldn't be controlled.

Mat Kaplan: I did a fair amount of reading in preparation for this and I saw that really a tremendous amount of progress had been made toward understanding the first failure and recovering from it. You already had new cables on order. This must have made the second failure just that much more devastating.

Francisco Cordova: Oh, absolutely. I guess the real frustration is, we felt... That the engineering teams felt they had bounded the problem to these auxiliary cables. The first cable that failed was an auxiliary cable. That auxiliary cable was the newest cable that we have on the facility, we installed it in the 1990s as part of the Gregorian update of the facility, and the failure mode for that particular cable was very universal repricing, it didn't fail in tension, it pulled through the socket.

Francisco Cordova: We spent a lot of time first understanding that particular failure, making sure that we understood enough about the structure to feel safe working in and around those areas. A comprehensive structural model of the facility was built to try to understand the structural capacity of its elements. Then just as we had a plan developed and embedded, remember, everything needs to be evaluated by the National Science Foundation, it is approved by them, they have a set of consultants that reviews everything. There is a little bit of time in that turn.

Francisco Cordova: We had placed order for cables, we had scheduled contractors to fly in, to install some of these temporary clamps that would actually allow us to do a little bit more work in the tower areas, and we had constrained the problem to these auxiliary cables.

Francisco Cordova: At that point, I think, everybody felt that there was a handle, more or less, on the situation. Because we were beginning to understand it. Then unfortunately we have this other failure, which was completely unexpected. The second failure was a failure of a main cable. These main cables were the original cables that were installed in the '60s by the Department of Defense when they built the facility originally. This particular failure is a failure in tension. It's a failure, because there is degraded capacity in that particular element. That opens up a bunch of other concerns and issues where we start thinking, well, why did that particular one fail? Do we have other cables that exhibit the same type of behavior?

Francisco Cordova: I've seen also damage in two other main cables in that same tower, which really lead us to believe that there is significant degradation that's occurred on that particular structural system, which further complicates our ability to really be able to salvage the facility with zero risk. I think it's important to mention that. A lot of people have asked me, why didn't we change this sooner or could have responded differently. Well, there is a level of, first you have to understand the problem, and the mandate had always been clear of, we have to have no risk to personnel performing the tasks in these areas.

Francisco Cordova: In order to do that, in order to quantifiably measure safety, then we needed to take it step by step, and we needed to understand the capacities, and then we needed to understand the failure modes and determine those, and doing a lot of those things without being able to touch the hardware is very complicated. Finally, when we were ready to execute a plan, then we had this second failure, which just set us back.

Mat Kaplan: Wow. There have also always been budget challenges, haven't there? Maybe not always, but in recent years. I came across an article by my former colleague, Emily Lakdawalla from 2007, which she simply titled, Save Arecibo, which of course happened. But, it has been a struggle to keep this great dish in operation, hasn't it?

Francisco Cordova: It has been, and I think for over a decade, definitely, there has been challenges, and there's been the consideration of budget cuts and trying to find creative ways to support operations in the facility. I joined the team in 2016, and the challenge that we were going at that point was the divestment process that NSF was having, or was undergoing with a lot of their astronomy facilities. That was our first challenge, how do we turn this around, and what can we do to turn it around to a point that we can showcase the value of the facility worldwide, if we weren't doing it well enough?

Francisco Cordova: I think we were actually able to do that, and we were able to develop a plan and implement a plan that successfully increased scientific productivity of the facility, that broad external funding into the facility, and we were very proud of our accomplishments, especially over the last two years as the University of Central Florida took over the management of the facility. But yes, you're correct, there has been challenging budget cuts.

Francisco Cordova: Our particular contract has a year after year budget cut. The one thing we haven't really gotten that cut because Congress has really mandated National Science Foundation to maintain the research facilities that have flat funding. So, we've benefited from that flat funding for the last couple of years. But the challenges for Arecibo has been there for a while. Our focus has been on how do we showcase the capability? How do we make that capability even better than we had it before, and how can we find a way to increase scientific productivity in-house and externally through our users to build new collaborations, to bring more equipment?

Francisco Cordova: In the last two years, when you look at what we've accomplished, we have over $60 million worth of funding and new grants. We have three different pieces of equipment that are under fabrication. We were on the path of success. Unfortunately, we run into this bigger roadblock, which we're still trying to get over.

Mat Kaplan: I had read about some of these great fundraising successes that you've enjoyed just in the few years you've been there and I will add as the youngest person ever to head up an NSF facility like at Arecibo, there are so many more radio telescopes now than when Arecibo saw first light back in 1963. Why has it remained such an important instrument?

Francisco Cordova: In radio astronomy, size matters. The size of Arecibo just makes it that sensitive at our given frequencies, than any other telescope out there. There continues to be cutting edge science that gets done here every day, and nothing has been able to replace that. While we do have other phased array telescopes that perhaps are more modern, and do fantastic science, they have fantastic capabilities, we can't deny that. When you're looking at the sensitivity, that's where Arecibo shines, that's number one. Number two, I think the fact that Arecibo is a multidisciplinary facility, is those things that really makes it unique.

Francisco Cordova: We have astronomy, we have space and atmospheric sciences, and we also have planetary sciences. It is very unique in the sense that we have all three of those communities here working with the same instrument, but utilizing completely different capabilities of that particular instrument. The astronomy team focuses certainly on the sensitivity on the large collecting area. The planetary team focuses on the power of the planetary radar, which is the most powerful planetary radar in the world, there's not another one like it. The space and atmospheric sciences team has the most sensitive incoherent scatter radar in the world, as well as this suite of other equipment, including lidars, including optics, including remote observing facilities, ionospheric heating capability, there's just so much going on at Arecibo at any given time.

Francisco Cordova: Actually, that was one of our big operational challenges. One of our big challenges was, we have different communities, we have different capabilities, how do we find a way to create schedules that we can fit everybody in and be successful? Those are, I think, the big things about Arecibo that has made it be a significant instrument for so long. That's why so many of us still are in shock with with it not being here anymore, because we know that even today, there isn't another facility like this one in the world. You can talk about other telescopes, face-to-rate telescopes, you can talk about the Chinese fast telescope, which is actually larger than Arecibo, but they don't have the same capabilities. The fast doesn't have any radars or any transmitters, they're not built to have that. They don't have an ionospheric heating capability. They have very limited frequency ranges. The uniqueness of Arecibo, and the value a facility like this one still continues to just stay.

Mat Kaplan: I'm so glad that you mentioned the radar capability, because our audience knows it very well, since we frequently talked about how it has been used to reveal more about near-earth objects, near-earth asteroids and saving our planet, perhaps, someday, as well as doing great science. In fact, it was mentioned not long ago on the show about until we can look at, I think it was Apophis, we were talking about, that big rock that's going to pass by in 2029, how much people were looking forward to using your facility to tell us more about that big rock. That is a big part of what has happened down there, hasn't it?

Francisco Cordova: Oh, absolutely. Even last year, we broke the record on the most near-earth objects that we had actually pinged with our radar. It's one of our key capabilities... There are other facilities that have other planetary radars but they're not as sensitive as Arecibo, so you're not going to get such a great resolution on your images, and there are other objects that are just too far away for other radars to reach that were within our reach. Certainly, that has been, I think, a key mission for us here at Arecibo is supporting the characterization of potentially hazardous near-earth objects.

Mat Kaplan: Someone has created a Twitter account, Save the Arecibo Observatory, or @SaveTheAO, we'll repeat that again later. It includes this charming little video that goes through some of the accomplishments of Arecibo. It seems, at least if I heard it correctly, by children, you probably have seen it, I assume, I mention this only because I'm wondering if you could single out, and it's not fair, because of course, there have been hundreds, are there a few specific discoveries made by the observatory over the last 57 years that you could maybe mention?

Francisco Cordova: Absolutely. There's so many. It's always the challenge when I'm asked this question.

Mat Kaplan: Of course.

Francisco Cordova: The reason why I say it's challenging is, as I mentioned, we have three different communities, and every one of them have fantastic highlights, and they've accomplished so many great scientific endeavors, that's always hard to pick. One of the first ones, determine the rotation rate of mercury, that's always a big one that we have out there. Being able to detect the first repeating fast radio bursts is another one, way more recent than that one. Seeing the first triple asteroid system.

Francisco Cordova: Again, every one of these has so many accomplishments. I always struggle even to showcase it when we're at conferences, I always get that question. I always have a slide built that lists all of them. But there's so many that you can't really... The slide isn't big enough for all this stuff that I get in there. But no, it's always amazing to read through the history of Arecibo, and to realize all that has been accomplished, and all that is left to be accomplished, right?

Francisco Cordova: That's something that I always like to talk about and say, we've done great things, there's so much more that we could potentially do. There is such a big need for a facility like Arecibo, as we go into the future, that I think we have to find a way to maintain some of those capabilities. If we're not going to be able to maintain them in this current setup, then we think about how to reimagine the observatory for its second generation.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah. I also think of the personal impact. For so many people, and I've talked to many of them who have done work at Arecibo, either were on site or benefited from the data gathered there. One of my colleagues met the planetary scientist who would become his wife, while both of them were working at your facility.

Francisco Cordova: Amazing.

Mat Kaplan: It has played such a huge role in the lives of so many scientists and young people, particularly I think there in Puerto Rico. You must be hearing these stories as well.

Francisco Cordova: Absolutely. When you talk about the impact in Puerto Rico, this is one of these sites that you actually always visit when you're in school. When you have a school trip, the observatory is one of those places that you're going to go on a school trip on one of those. Actually, I came to Arecibo on a school trip when I was in middle school, and I remember being impressed, and inspired by this structure.

Francisco Cordova: I think that happens to a lot of local kids here in Puerto Rico. We receive over 25,000 schoolchildren on any given year, that have the opportunity to see this magnificent instrument and become inspired by it. Losing that is also going to be significant. Our Science and Visitors Center, we have one of the most complete science and Visitor Centers of any National Science Foundation, large facility. We have typically over 80,000 Visitors Center, but we also have a range of formal and informal education programs, ranging from elementary school, middle school, high school, and also undergraduate and graduate programs. I think those are also very important to highlight. They are key to maintaining or pipeline of talented scientists, not only for Arecibo, but for the entire world.

Mat Kaplan: No matter what happens with the dish, the big dish, are there parts of the facility, you mentioned the Visitors Center, that will remain open and maybe continue to do research?

Francisco Cordova: This announced decommissioning, I think is still being planned by the National Science Foundation and certainly as the managing team here, we're also talking very closely with them and what those plans are. But the idea is really just to decommission the 305 meter telescope. The plan is to maintain the remainder of the site. This is an 118 acre site, so it's fairly large. We have over 30 buildings at this facility, all of which we want to maintain.

Francisco Cordova: We do want to maintain the Science and Visitor Center, I think there's a lot of other ancillary equipment, like our lidars, like our photo meters, like our air flows, all of those equipments are still functional, and will continue to operate. We have a remote observing facility in the island of Culebra, there is still quite a bit of science to be done with those instruments. We have a 12 meter dish that we called it the little dish, we can also do certain types of observations with that particular telescope.

Francisco Cordova: There is quite a bit of activity going on right now to realign our priorities to these other instruments, as we develop, I think a comprehensive plan for, A, what would it look like if we were to think on building something new? What would that be, and what capabilities would we like it to be? Would it be even possible? We still don't know, we'd certainly like to think so.

Francisco Cordova: Our imagination is running pretty free trying to come up with some concepts of what's in the art of the possible for the future there. But the science doesn't stop. Our idea as well is to be able to reopen the Science and Visitor Center down the line to be able to maintain some of these educational public outreach programs that are so important to Puerto Rico.

Mat Kaplan: I sure hope that can happen. I'm also thinking of the University of Central Florida, which operates and manages the telescope on behalf of the National Science Foundation. I saw this quote from the UCF President, Alexander Cartwright. He said, "We remain committed to the scientific mission in Arecibo and to the local community." Which I hope gives you some reassurance that you have this partner still working on your behalf?

Francisco Cordova: Absolutely. Absolutely. UCF, and I am a direct employee for the University of Central Florida, and the university has been amazing. The support that we've gotten for the university has been great, and we are fully committed to continue doing great science here at Arecibo, and helping in any way that we can. I agree that incorporating also other elements and potential education elements from UCF is also something that we have in mind as well.

Mat Kaplan: I just have one more, maybe unfair question for you, what would you like to see happen?

Francisco Cordova: It's an interesting one. Many people ask me that, but not in that same way. It's hard to understand, certainly, preserving the facility is something we would love to see. You always like to see finding a way to save it. But being here on the ground, I also understand that the safety challenges that come with that, it's a difficult decision on whether there is a willingness to take the risks necessary to stabilize it. But at the end of the day, the way I see it is either we find a way to stabilize it and save it, or we find a way to rebuild it. Because the need is still there, the need for a facility of this size, of this sensitivity, with these or better capabilities is still needed. That's what I would say is what I'd like to see. If we could say that that'd be great. Understand the challenges [inaudible 00:33:35] so if we can save it, let's build another one.

Mat Kaplan: Here, here. Thank you, Francisco. I wish you the greatest of success, and I'm sure I do that on behalf of our audience and the members of The Planetary Society as well. I look forward to getting better news. But we are very, very grateful for you taking this time to go over what still must be a pretty painful topic, and best of luck as things move forward.

Francisco Cordova: Absolutely. Thank you, Mat, for the opportunity.

Mat Kaplan: I will just mention again, there is that Twitter account, Save the Arecibo Observatory or @SaveTheAO. Oh, and there is a petition campaign there as well, and I've seen the hashtag Save the Arecibo Observatory and #whatarecibomeanstome. There are plenty of people who should be able to respond to that. Francisco, I'm going to keep it on my bucket list as well because it has always been near the top of that list for me to make it to that beautiful spot and see this facility. I hope to talk to you in person someday.

Francisco Cordova: That would be fantastic.

Mat Kaplan: Arecibo Observatory Director, Francisco Cordova. This week's What's Up gives Bruce Betts the opportunity to add his thoughts about the loss of the observatory. You'll hear him in moments.

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Mat Kaplan: Time for What's Up on Planetary radio. Bruce Betts is the Chief Scientist of The Planetary Society. It's only proper because we talk a fair amount about Arecibo, and its role in planetary defense and learning about rocks out there, I wanted to give you a chance to comment on this loss of the great dish as well.

Bruce Betts: Well, it's obviously very sad for the science community, all the great science they've done over many decades, studying all sorts of aspects of the universe, of course, and planetary defense that's near and dear to my heart. They were one of only two planetary radars that were able to radar image and study the properties of near-earth asteroids.

Bruce Betts: The loss of Arecibo is a big deal, particularly because now we have Goldstone which is great, but Goldstone is one facility and so you're lacking redundancy as well as the capability of Arecibo to reach farther out in distance to observe asteroids. Even coming up this spring, there are observations of Apophis that were planned, Apophis, the asteroid that'll fly by very close to the earth in 2029, and the radio scientist in the Apophis office workshop I went to recently were hoping that Arecibo would be back online. But now obviously, we'll just be using Goldstone, which will get data, it just won't be quite the same.

Mat Kaplan: I mentioned while I was talking to Francisco Cordova that we had talked about how there was hope to use Arecibo in the study of Apophis. That actually wasn't in a recent show, it was in a webinar that we did a while back about planetary defense. I'm not surprised to hear that you're also saddened by this. I suppose though, we'll just keep monitoring the situation as I told Francisco and keep looking up. You can help us with that, what's up there?

Bruce Betts: I can. There's a lot of great stuff coming up in the next few weeks. In the evening sky, you have bright Jupiter, yellow Saturn are getting closer and closer in the sky, and they will be closer than they've been in 400 years on the 21st of December. That's in the evening, southwest. Before then we've got the annual Geminids meteor showers traditionally the best shower of the year with 100 plus meteors per hour from a dark side, and there actually will be very little moon, it'll be almost a new moon. So, it'll be a great time to observe that. That's peaking on December 13th and 14th, and will also occur a few days before and after.

Bruce Betts: If that wasn't enough, there's a total solar eclipse on December 14th that will be visible from portions of Chile and Argentina, and the partial eclipse visible for much of South America. You can see planetary.org/eclipse for more information on that. Then in the morning sky, if you're still awake because you're so excited, Venus is still looking super bright over in the east.

Mat Kaplan: You weren't kidding, lots of great stuff to see. I take it that that partial eclipse won't reach as far as those of us even in the southern portion of North America?

Bruce Betts: No. You're going to have to road trip and now is not really the ideal time for travel.

Mat Kaplan: No. I was thinking though about making that trip out to the desert, [inaudible 00:39:10] is not too far for me on the night of the 13th that might be worth it to see some of those rocks.

Bruce Betts: It should be well worth it. It should be really good especially with the new moon. All right, onto this week in space history, 1972 the last human mission to the moon launched, Apollo 17. 1998, Unity and Zarya modules were joined together forming the core of what would become the International Space Station.

Mat Kaplan: Yay.

Bruce Betts: Onto [inaudible 00:39:39]

Mat Kaplan: Showing your age there, old timer.

Bruce Betts: Oh yeah, sure I am. The Arecibo radio dish covered, I guess it still covers about the same area as the White House and its grounds.

Mat Kaplan: Interesting.

Bruce Betts: I don't know, but it is random. They're about the same area of the dish and the White House plus the fenced in area around it.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah, I think that's very interesting. I think that's a good analogy. [Gooden 00:40:13].

Bruce Betts: Gooded, big, is the answer. If we move on to the trivia contest. Mars Odyssey, longest continuously active orbiter around another world. I asked you what spacecraft is the second longest continuously active orbiter around another world? How did we do, Mat?

Mat Kaplan: It has a moderate response and a number of people who make good guesses, but wrong guesses. I'm going to read one of these to you, one of these incorrect ones, because it has special qualifications. It's from Heather Vecchione, Colorado. She thought it was the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Not true, close, but not true. But Heather has an admirable bias. She says, I work on both the Mars Odyssey and MRO programs as a quality assurance engineer, and mission operations at Lockheed Martin. It's truly a dream job, and I love learning something about Mars every day. Congratulations, Heather, and thanks for your service.

Bruce Betts: It's great, and MRO has been working for a really long time as well, since 2005. But there's more.

Mat Kaplan: Here is more from our Poet Laureate, Dave Fairchild in Kansas. It's okay to be the second longest step in space because we send them up to find the info, not to race. So, Mars Express has been at Mars since June 2003. Like Matt and Bruce, it's quite a pair, with good old Odyssey.

Bruce Betts: We've been doing this longer than Mars Express has been in orbit.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah, that's right. Not quite as long as Odyssey though. Here is our winner. Mark Dunning in Florida is our winner. He says Mars Express still kicking since 2003. Tears for the Beagle lander, which was released by Mars Express made it to the surface of Mars but not in one piece. Space is hard, and Mars is very unforgiving. He says, "You guys help more than I can say. Thankful for plan rad." Well, thank you, Mark, and congratulations, you have won yourself that Spacefarer's Handbook by Bergita and Urs Ganse out of Europe. It's great. I got the PDF version, it's terrific, and you can get the eBook or the physical one, we'll be sure to ask you which one you would prefer.

Mat Kaplan: I got some other stuff. Big surprise, right?

Bruce Betts: Yeah.

Mat Kaplan: Cody Rockswild in Florida, "Mars Express takes the almost appropriate red ribbon." It is very appropriate, I think. Really, they're all winners, and so are we. Michael Unger, "It arrived on Christmas Day, just like the Polar Express." Bet you hadn't thought of that one. I hadn't.

Bruce Betts: No, I hadn't.

Mat Kaplan: Thorsten Zimmer in Germany, talking about the longevity of this spacecraft, and that's why people buy European cars. Just saying. That's it. I'm done with these. What else you got? What do you got for next time?

Bruce Betts: It's bittersweet. But I think it's an impressive thing. How many aluminum panels are in the Arecibo radio dish, the main dish reflector part? How many aluminum panels was it made of? Go to planetary.org/radiocontest.

Mat Kaplan: Well, that's very appropriate. We are going to make it worth your while to do the research. Here is a brand new, never before offered prize on Planetary Radio because it's a brand new product from Chop Shop. That's chopshopstore.com, where The Planetary Society's store is, it's our brand new baseball cap with a nice big Planetary Society blue logo designed by the boss, the CEO, over a starfield, and then below that, in much smaller type it says The Planetary Society. That's it, and you have until the 9th, December 9th, that's Wednesday at 8:00 AM Pacific Time to get us the answer to this one. Good luck.

Bruce Betts: All right, everybody, go out there, look up the night sky and think about what you would point a planetary radar at. Thank you and good night.

Mat Kaplan: I think I would point a planetary radar at another planetary radar, just to see what happens. But we can't do that now, because there's only one left, we ought to take care of that situation. He's, Bruce Betts, he's the Chief Scientist of The Planetary Society who's wondering about the physics of all this as I speak, because he joins us every week here for What's Up.

Mat Kaplan: Planetary radio is produced by The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, and is made possible by its members who mourn the loss of any scientist or instrument of science. You can join our fight at planetary.org/membership. Mark Hilverda is our associate producer, Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Peter Schlosser. Ad astra.