Update, Dec. 1, 2020: The Arecibo Observatory collapsed overnight.
When I was 13, my best friend Kristen and I went to see the movie Contact. We sat slumped in the bouncy red velvet chairs of the AMC on Azusa Avenue in California—just two of us near the front of the theater. I will never forget holding a giant bucket of popcorn as the opening sequence started, the music zooming out with us through the solar system. There was Earth at night, lit up cities below, and a golden ribbon of atmosphere that contained us. How real it looked! We kept zooming out. This is what it would be like to fly through space, past Mars and the asteroid belt, past Jupiter. Jupiter! I felt my hands tingle and my grip on the popcorn loosened. This was it. Whatever this feeling was, this wonder and awe, this is the feeling I would chase.
When the movie brings us back to Earth, we meet Ellie Arroway as a curious child who bonds with her father over ham radio, enamored with the idea that humans can connect this way across great distances. She begins to take to the dials regularly, turning the knobs just so. She calls out “CQ-CQ. This is W9GFO. Come back.” It’s when she gets an answer back from a man in Pensacola, Florida, that it hits her and she asks her dad, “Could we talk to Jupiter? Or Saturn. Could we talk to Saturn?” “Mmm hmm,” he says.
Her fascination and realization that a seemingly invisible connection could become something real makes little Ellie voracious to keep listening and calling out. One day she gets frustrated she’s not finding more people “out there.” Her dad simply says to her, “Small moves, Ellie. Small moves.”
When we jump to Ellie as an adult, she’s standing outside, half-smiling, gazing out at the Arecibo telescope with quiet joy.
Built inside a massive sinkhole in the jungle of Puerto Rico, the telescope’s 1,000-foot-wide aluminum-plated dish shines, a glaringly elegant marker of technology amid the wildness of the landscape. Built in the early 1960s, Arecibo was initially designed to study the Earths ionosphere, the chemically active layer in the upper atmosphere that is ionized by solar radiation. In the decades since, it has contributed to our understanding of pulsars, near-Earth asteroids, and planets within—and beyond—our solar system.
Ellie’s childhood dreams of using radio waves to listen for life in space have finally been realized, at what was at the time the most powerful telescope in the world: When she meets her colleagues that night, she tells them that she’s there to listen for “little green men.”
While Ellie eventually makes her pivotal discovery at a different observatory (the Very Large Array, comprising 28 smaller dishes), Arecibo became for me a symbol of this search. That’s one of the major reasons why the recent announcement that the National Science Foundation has decided to decommission the telescope hit me especially hard. The telescope is a powerful scientific instrument, but it’s also something more.
But on Aug. 10, Arecibo suffered a break in one of its cables that hold the suspended telescope’s 900-ton dish in place. Then, on Nov. 6, a second cable snapped, making the destruction of the telescope imminent. After thorough inspection, the National Science Foundation has decided it is simply too dangerous to repair. After 57 years of operation, it will decommission, and eventually dismantle, the telescope.
The scientific community launched into a justifiable outpouring of shock and sadness. On Twitter, the hashtag #WhatAreciboMeansToMe gathered steam as astronomers young and old, writers, you-name-it began tweeting photos of themselves in front of the dish with huge smiles and hard hats.
Kevin Ortiz Ceballos, a physics student and student researcher in radio astronomy at University of Puerto Rico, wrote a tweet thread about how important this observatory is to him. “More than a telescope, Arecibo is the reason I am even in astronomy, and has had an incalculable impact in the communities of Puerto Rico.”
Astronomer Sam Lawler tweeted, “As a child, seeing LeVar Burton on Reading Rainbow talking to a (woman!) astronomer measuring pulsars and then exploring Arecibo is one of the important events that convinced me that I wanted to become an astronomer.”
In the world of space and astronomy, Arecibo means different things to everyone, but at the heart, it seems to hit the same for us all—this telescope meant a level of access to the cosmos that we simply can’t find anywhere else. (For example, while the Very Large Array consists of many smaller dishes working together, it still only has one-fifth the collecting area of Arecibo.)
You and I view the world in the visible spectrum, which severely limits what we can “see” in the universe. Like many things, objects in space are multilayered—they emit visible light, microwave light, and radio waves just to name a few, all different wavelengths of electromagnetic energy. Being able to detect faint whispers of radio waves from objects millions of light years away is something only very powerful radio telescopes can do. Arecibo helps us “see” what we cannot.
The telescope has been instrumental in major scientific discoveries, including the first confirmed detection of exoplanets, and a discovery of spinning pulsar stars that provided the first evidence of gravitational waves. This won the scientists involved a Nobel Prize in physics in 1993. Arecibo is so powerful that it can detect radio frequencies as sensitive as the cosmic microwave background—a splattering backdrop of the beginning of everything in existence.
In 1974, to mark an upgrade to the telescope, astronomers Frank Drake and Carl Sagan (the author of the novel Contact) did something incredible—they used it to send a message to a “nearby” globular star cluster called M13. That cluster of more than 300,000 stars is some 22,000 light-years away, but eventually (in 22,000 years) it will receive what has come to be known as the Arecibo message: a simple illustration depicting the telescope itself, a curly strand of DNA, a few biological markers, and a stick figure of a human. This was the first message humans ever sent out to the cosmos to simply say, Hi, we are here. (There wasn’t much hope for an answer—even if someone’s out there to receive the message and they do respond, we wouldn’t know for 44,000 years.)
It is in part because of achievements like this that Arecibo has become so deeply embedded in our culture as an icon for space science. The telescope and its setting are also just visually striking, so it’s become known beyond its science. In an especially tense episode of The X-Files, Fox Mulder finds himself trapped inside a small control room at the telescope, hiding from an alien. The climactic scene in Goldeneye has James Bond duking it out with Alec Trevelyan on a ladder that dangles over the Arecibo dish. This dramatic fight ends with Goldeneye’s villain falling to his long-awaited death, landing crumpled on the dish’s floor.
But then, we have Contact, which is to me the film that matches the heart of what Arecibo means to the world: a physical representation of our most human longings, our deepest desires. It’s in our nature to ask questions, to ask, especially, Are we alone in this world? To have even a chance at finding that answer holds so much power.
My entire life I’ve dreamed of going there, of standing on that ledge like Ellie, just contemplating the possibilities of what the dish could find. I wanted to be like her, to be that intelligent and brave. My own obsession with those big questions grew, and it eventually led me to writing about space and all the incredible things we learn by looking and listening to the universe. Ellie proudly and firmly states she is not studying pulsars or quasars or globular clusters—no, she is looking for signs of life. And when she’s told that work is nonsense, she answers, “I don’t consider what could potentially be the biggest discovery of the human race nonsense!”
Decommissioning the Arecibo telescope won’t be the end of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, known as SETI, or the other scientific work that had been conducted there, but this is still a loss for science. It’s never easy to fund large telescopes like this, and the ripple effect of research will be felt for a long time.
Losing Arecibo—or any telescope of this magnitude, or any spacecraft—drives home something I think we tend to forget: Telescopes and spacecraft aren’t just tools. They are extensions of ourselves.
While humanity is space-faring in some way—sure, the International Space Station counts—every time we go to space, we are reminded that we don’t really belong there. So, we’ve sent our surrogates in our stead to explore and built massive telescopes to peer into the vastness that we’ll never visit.
Imagine if we had none of these tools we’ve built to listen for signals, to gaze deeply back in time at the universe as it looked billions of years ago. Exploring the cosmos is a way for us to know ourselves. Each time we look up, in some way we are making contact with each other, with our past, present, and future. While we might appear isolated on our small planet, we are part of a greater network, of things unseen, of distant stars, radio bursts, dazzling far off solar systems. We are all—all humans, all of those distant stars—made of the same elements, created in the big bang. Our gazing outward and persistent exploration are simply uncovering ourselves in the family of the cosmos.
Arecibo gave us 57 years of a link to the world around our little planet, and there’s no way for the loss of that not to hurt. But maybe there is hope. Maybe Arecibo was just the beginning.
At the climax of Contact, Ellie meets the intelligent alien whose message she finally detected.
He tells her, “You’re an interesting species, an interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone—only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.”
In her reply she begs, “Do we get to come back?? People need to see what I’ve seen.”
He assures her, “This was just the first step. In time you’ll take another. Small moves, Ellie, small moves.”
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.