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Hur­ricane Maria damaged instru­ments at the Arecibo Obser­vatory used by Hillsdale stu­dents and faculty for research. Timothy Dolch | Courtesy

Hur­ricane Maria caused damage to instru­ments at Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Obser­vatory, home to the world’s second-largest radio tele­scope and other instru­men­tation used by Assistant Pro­fessor of Physics Timothy Dolch and Hillsdale College stu­dents.

The hur­ricane damage affected the telescope’s receiver, the 430-MHz feed, which

fell and created a hole in the the the 305-meter William E. Gordon Tele­scope. A smaller antenna used for very long baseline inter­fer­ometry was also damaged during the storm.

Dolch said the damage was repairable under ordinary cir­cum­stances, but decreased funding for the obser­vatory may affect the repair process.

“The federal gov­ernment has a plan in place to grad­ually ramp down the funding to it, and it’s still not clear how this hur­ricane damage is going to affect that,” Dolch said. “ It’s not a great moment for that damage to happen.”

He said one pos­sible repair plan may be to fix the telescope’s dish and not replace the antenna blown off of the hanging platform, since the tele­scope has many other antennae on the platform.

The pulsar astro­physics group at Hillsdale will adapt its obser­vation program to the available receivers. Dolch said just a week before the hur­ricane hit, the group con­cluded a project using the obser­vatory to search for a new pulsar, a dense, col­lapsed star with rotating mag­netic fields. The star’s mag­netic fields give

off beams of radio and other emis­sions that spin like a lighthouse’s beacon.

“That antenna was exactly what we had needed for our project, so we were lucky,” Dolch said.

Dolch said in addition to the tele­scope damage, some sci­en­tists’ fam­ilies are taking shelter in the obser­vatory

since their houses are unlivable, and the Federal Emer­gency Man­agement Agency is using the obser­vatory as a hub to coor­dinate relief efforts. All obser­vatory staff and their fam­ilies have sur­vived the hur­ricane, according to initial reports.

“Arecibo Obser­vatory is so much more than just a tele­scope,” Deputy Director Joan Schmelz said in an email update. “It served as a shelter during the storm and a haven in the aftermath.”

Dolch said in the long term, repairs to the Arecibo tele­scope will allow its con­tinued con­tri­bution to the Puerto Rican economy and pulsar astronomy.

“Arecibo Obser­vatory is the pre­miere instrument in the world for pulsar astronomy, and his­tor­i­cally, many of the big dis­cov­eries came from Arecibo,” Dolch said. “It’s the critical instrument for this kind of science.”