Back in November, Oksana and I spent a couple weeks exploring Puerto Rico. We went mainly for sun and sea — you can’t go wrong with a Caribbean island — but once we bought our tickets, I knew we’d be checking out the Arecibo Radio Telescope.
You may have already seen the telescope. It’s been used as a backdrop for all sorts of movies: Contact, GoldenEye, and the X-Files. If not, well, please allow Oksana and I to give you a tour!
On the technical side, putting this episode together has been a nightmare. My Dell XPS M1330, which was rock solid for this sort of work up until a few months ago, is suffering from a failing cooling system. I’ve inspected the inside, there’s not a spec of dust and the fan is working (overtime!) just fine. I have a hunch it’s a design flaw and a cursory look at “the forums” corroborates that idea. I’d go to town with tech support (or just fix it myself) if I were not: 1) Leaving for Ecuador, and 2) planning to buy a new laptop next spring.
In any event, the Amazing Crashing Laptop prevented me from posting this episode while we were still on the trip. And it’s only by the grace of the desk-fan-pointed-at-its-keyboard that I managed to finish it up before my next trip.
The following is a transcript of the above video for Google’s benefit (ignore it, watch the video instead!)
Hi! This is Arlo with Postcard Valet. It’s November 12, 2009, and we’re at the world’s largest radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.
Last night, Oksana and I stayed in a hotel called Casa Grande, up in the jungle, up in the mountain, and we thought it would be close enough to where we wanted to go today, but we didn’t realize how twisty and windy the roads were.
The drive was supposed to take, oh, well, maybe an hour. Guess what. We got lost. We had quite an adventure of driving on windy roads and all that good stuff, but we made it there. As we drove up to the observatory, we went through the gate and the first sign that we saw going through the gate, or one of the first signs, was this old-style cell phone with a big huge red line through it and we were like, “What? What’s going on?”
Apparently they’re pretty serious about it. Because it’s a radio telescope, it will pick up interference from even such a small handset.
The park itself was pretty small. There’s an observatory and a little science exhibit. It cost us $6 each to get in.
We walked up the stairs, got in. They have a little science museum that you walk through first.
I was pretty impressed with the science exhibit. It was only really one room. A lot of things had buttons you could press, demonstrations you could see, motorized things that you could play with, little ports you could stick your head in and see the planets moving. All sorts of great little, very informative displays.
For instance: The one that shows the color temperature of light. You can increase the amount of power going to a light bulb and it will show you the color temperature as you go – even getting it down to where it’s technically it’s still on, but you can’t see anything; and it’s shifted into the infra-red.
There was another one where you could hold up a prism of sorts against a hydrogen or helium neon tube and see the spectrum shift there, so you can, for instance, they can tell what a star’s made out of.
Lots of little displays like that, very very cool, very well done, I thought.
Then we went and watched a little one-day-in-the-life of the observatory video and, um, hmmm, let’s say it was a little bit outdated.
What was really bad was that they tried to have all the people that actually work there force some dialog, make it look like they were acting, and… you could, you could tell it was pretty painful.
But after the movie was done, we went out back to the observatory itself and looked out over the edge and saw the whole radio telescope there, right in front of us.
I, personally, had no understanding of what it was going to be and how the whole telescope was going to look like. It was really cool.
And the thing was huge – it’s something like 300 meters across. Looking up above us, we could see the three towers across the little valleys there. Each tower with something like seven suspension cables holding… this incredibly massive structure up above. It was pretty cool; you could see people walking along up at the dome. It was really, really, really impressive.
The telescope itself, the bowl, is not actually sitting on the ground. Because the understanding that I had, was that it was solid concrete that was in this bowl that’s a natural formation and that they just paved the sides of the mountain, but it turns out that the whole dish is actually off the ground and the whole structure is aluminum.
Each aluminum panel, they say, is set to within 2 millimeters of accuracy to get the right curvature so that the radio signals are gathered down into the bowl and the dome can then be moved to focus anywhere on the bowl. So in that way, they can examine many different parts of the sky.
And we also got to see it moving (10x), because every time somebody’s doing a certain experiment or they want to point it to an exact spot, they have to readjust the antenna and point it just right, so this whole massive thing moves sideways and then turns and readjusts it. So it’s really really neat.
Arecibo Radio Telescope
Arecibo, Puerto Rico
It is November 12th, and we are at, uh… Tell me the name.
Which is, uh… Shoot! Can’t remember the name! Wonderful! (Laugh)
Postcard Valet is a Travel Podcast by Arlo Midgett & Oksana Midgett
© 2009 Arlo Midgett
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