This post has been updated.
All staff at Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory are safe after Hurricane Maria roared over the island Wednesday, but the iconic radio telescope suffered some damage during the storm.
SRI International, which helps manage the huge telescope, said Thursday night that they were able to make communication with the small team who weathered the storm there. There had been radio silence from the observatory since early Wednesday morning, hours before the eye of the storm passed over Arecibo, in Puerto Rico's northwest.
On Friday, another group that manages the observatory, the Universities Space Research Association, said that major structures are intact, including the 1,000-foot primary dish. Some instruments have suffered damage from falling debris, and a smaller 40-foot dish was lost.
According to the National Science Foundation, which owns Arecibo, the observatory is outfitted with generators and a well for water. The staff on site have enough fuel and food to last them a week.
“The number one priority for all should be safety and recovery for the Puerto Rico population,” NSF spokeswoman Aya Collins said in an email Friday. “Any concerns regarding NSF activities are secondary to that.”
Collins said that the NSF still doesn't know the full extent of damage to Arecibo or other NSF-funded research infrastructure. Given the devastation in Puerto Rico, the foundation does not have a timeline for when the telescope's condition will be assessed.
The Arecibo Observatory, in Puerto Rico's northwest, is home to the world's second-largest radio telescope. The huge primary dish, built into a sinkhole in a mountain range, has been used to discover the first exoplanets and detect organic molecules in a galaxy millions of light-years away. It's where the fictional astronomer Ellie Arroway got her start in the movie “Contact” and where real scientists Frank Drake, Jill Tarter and Carl Sagan, among others, launched efforts to detect extraterrestrial life.
Recently, financial concerns have called telescope's future has been in question. In the past several years, the NSF has sought to divest itself of older facilities to free up its limited budget for new endeavors. The foundation is looking for new partners to pay for and run Arecibo after concluding it can't afford to keep funding the observatory out of its own budget. But an environmental-impact statement released in August also considered what would happen if NSF closed or demolished the facility.
The NSF will consider whether it needs to adjust that assessment, and its plans for the future of Arecibo, once it determines the full extent of the damage to the observatory, Collins said.
The eye of the storm passed Arecibo on Wednesday afternoon. According to the National Hurricane Center, a weather station near Arecibo recorded wind gusts of 108 mph. All across the island, high winds and torrential rain felled cell towers, ripped roofs from buildings and turned roads into rivers.
Now all of Puerto Rico is without power, and Arecibo, along with the rest of the island, is under a flash flood warning.
According to Collins, flooding on the highways has completely cut off the western part of the island, where Arecibo is located. Local officials told NSF they think it will take three days just to reach the city of Manatí, located about halfway between San Juan and Arecibo.
The observatory has been closed since Monday so staff and researchers could make preparations for the storm. The telescope's primary dish is made of a mesh-like material that doesn't hold water, which helps it handle storms, and there is a generator-powered sump pump beneath the dish.
Planetary scientist Ed Rivera-Valentín said he and several others would be riding out the storm at Arecibo. On Tuesday evening, he tweeted weather data taken from the observatory platform that showed the telescope being buffeted by ever-faster winds.
Radio astronomer Robert Minchin shared photos of people putting wooden and metal storm shutters over the control room windows.
— Robert Minchin (@robminchin) September 19, 2017
But around 11:05 p.m. Tuesday, Minchin said he'd lost power. “Will be tweeting by SMS if network stays up,” he said. As of Thursday afternoon, that was the last message he'd sent.
The Web page that Rivera-Valentín had shared displaying weather data from the observatory was also offline all of Wednesday and Thursday.
On Tuesday, cameras on board the International Space Station captured dramatic footage of Hurricane Maria as it swirled toward Puerto Rico — a churning mass of white clouds punctuated by a dark pinhole of an eye.