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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.”