Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico
by Ron Chester ★ Saturday, December 26, 2020

My friend Joel, KD6W, sent me a link to a podcast about the collapse of the giant radio telescope in Puerto Rico, which was featured in the 1997 movie, Contact, starring Jodie Foster, based upon the 1985 Carl Sagan novel. They started building it in 1959, the same year I started studying for my Novice test, as well as learning Morse Code. It was put into service in 1963, the same year I went off to college. Joe Taylor, K1JT, used it to discover a binary pulsar system, research that earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1993. On 10 August 2020 one of the auxiliary support cables for the telescope (the cable weighed 20,000 pounds!) came down. Before they were able to work out a solution to this problem, there was a catastophic failure that brought the entire telescope down. This is all described in a podcast interview of Angel, WP3R, the director of the telescope operations, who has worked at the observatory for 43 years. They had some cameras in place to monitor the situation and then flew a drone into position at just the right time to watch it close up. They show two videos midway through the podcast that provide very close video of the horror of the final collapse on 1 December 2020

They also discuss (at 28:50) how they once used the telescope to make a successful moonbounce QSO, using a ham radio HT to chunk the local repeater to send a signal to the moon. Normally the telescope used only one watt of power to drive a one megawatt transmitter. But they did the moonbounce QSO (August 2010 QST) the ham radio way, because the 430 MHz band is a shared band between the ham community and the scientific community. The telescope antenna obviously had a huge amount of gain (70 dB gain). Originally NSF was talking about decommissioning the telescope after the recent collapse, but now they're considering the possibility of rebuilding it. Anyone want to donate $300 million? I'm sure it would be tax deductible for US taxpayers.

Joel originally got this podcast link from the legendary Radio Club of America. They had done their own interview of Angel in October 2020 and they were the last organization to get a tour of Arecibo Observatory. It's interesting to note that Tim Duffy, K3LR, President Emeritus of RCA (President 2016-2018) actually conducted both interviews! They are fascinating and well worth the time to view them. 

Angel mentioned Joe Taylor a lot, especially in the October interview. Besides winning the Nobel Prize, K1JT has been developing a lot of new digital modes for ham radio, beginning with WSJT, which is now open source software, and the JT stands for Joe Taylor. It was originally released in 2001 and there have been numerous variations of the software released over the years, including one released by Joe Taylor on 29 June 2017, called FT8. In the last link I provided, it says, FT8 stands for "Franke-Taylor design, 8-FSK modulation" and was created by Joe Taylor, K1JT and Steve Franke, K9AN. When I read this, the K9AN rang a bell as a callsign I had seen mentioned in my area. So I looked him up. Sure enough, he is shown as being in Urbana, about 60 miles from us here in Central Illinois. He is a recently retired Professor Emeritus in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Dept at the University of Illinois, where he also got his Ph.D. in 1984, the most famous university in our neighborhood. He taught Wireless Communication Systems there. So the F of FT8 is a ham just an hour away from me! I will keep my eyes out for him and perhaps I can work him on the air.