“I VOLUNTEER AS TRIBUTE” is what Dana must have heard.
We were talking about the ISEE-3 spacecraft during lunch at Arecibo Observatory some day in early June, just another day on the job. The transmitter to talk to the spacecraft, the only one that was capable of communicating with ISEE-3 on June 9, required manual intervention to switch between transmit and receive. I probably said something to the extent of, “It sounds like fun to spend 2.5 hours sweating profusely in a barely ventilated dome in a confined space 152 meters (500 feet) in the air with a something-hundred-kilowatt transmitter requiring manual switching to talk to a spacecraft launched before my parents even considered having kids,” or, “That might be fun to do later this week.” Not, “Sure, I’ll go spend my afternoon plugging and unplugging a cord in the name of science and archaic flight hardware”. To microwave receiver specialist Dana Whitlow, one of the few people on site trained to do this switching, this meant “Absolutely, yes—today.”
We know Arecibo Observatory for its 305-meter (1000-foot) diameter telescope and its appearances in Goldeneye and Contact. Aside from battling Bond villains and driving red diesel Jeeps around the telescope (grousing at the site director about the funding status of projects is optional), several hundred hours a year of telescope time at Arecibo go toward radar studies of asteroids. Tasked to “find asteroids before they find us”, a group of us four planetary radar astronomers at Arecibo (as well as collaborators and colleagues at institutions outside of Puerto Rico) observes asteroids for NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observation program. We study the orbits and surface properties of our rowdy neighbors, near-Earth asteroids.
How do we transmit and receive radio waves using the klystrons and radio receivers at the observatory, and how do we turn these into images of asteroids? Read more on my guest post at the Planetary Society on how planetary radar at Arecibo Observatory works.
I spent last week observing of asteroids from the telescope: our first night was just another 8-4 workday night, where we looked at space rocks in our neighborhood and out beyond Mars for eight hours.
Arriving at the control room, I sat down with my binder full of… notes on how to observe at Arecibo, which hadn’t made much sense. At any optical observatory you enter your coördinates into a computer and take an image. After verifying that you pointed the telescope correctly, you then tell the telescope system to take data for the rest of the night, occasionally adjusting pointing or focus.
At Arecibo, you’re pointed in the right direction. Alignment with the William E. Gordon Telescope is not an issue. Even with the 305-meter dish, you’re good to a few millimeters.
Getting the signal out of the receiver and properly into the computer is the hard part of observing. Instead of a few shiny silvered mirrors and a charge coupled device digitizing and sending your photons to a screen, here a maze of waveguides, cables, and wires brings signals from the matte metal dish, after being ushered into the receivers, along a path 1,600′ long to the control room. Where computer monitors would display starfields at an optical observatory, wavy lines danced across oscilloscopes at Arecibo. It felt like junior year electronics laboratory again in the physics department, so different from most of the things we were doing in astronomy, and not just because of cgs/MKS units arguments.
Ellen had considered walking me through cabling the week before our six-night-long marathon observing run, but ultimately decided that it wouldn’t make sense out of context. Wait for the actual observing run to understand the cabling.
A little over a week ago I arrived at the largest single-dish radio telescope in the world. My boss picked me up at the airport and drove me up into the hills of Puerto Rico’s karst country where I caught my first glimpse of the support towers of Arecibo Observatory, peeking out over the wooded hills.