When I first announced that I would be going to the Arecibo Observatory this summer, I was told by many people that I should watch the James Bond movie “GoldenEye.” I had never seen the movie. After all, it came out in 1995 when I was just learning to walk. My family and I rented the movie and watched waiting to see the observatory. And we waited and we waited. The observatory does not appear until the last minutes of the film.
No worries, as I will be seeing Arecibo Observatory in person soon. I will be traveling to Puerto Rico on June 2 for my undergraduate research experience. Misrepresented in GoldenEye, the observatory is not in Cuba. Rather, it is in the middle of the Puerto Rican jungle, just south of the town Arecibo. As the site of the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope (the ‘dish’ is about 1,000 feet in diameter), Arecibo Observatory is recognized as one of the most important centers for research in radio astronomy, planetary radar and ionosphere research.
I will be working on an engineering team to design a robotic device to clean and maintain the primary reflector surface of the dish. The primary reflector is composed of almost 40,000 aluminum panels set on a structure of suspended cables. Unlike in James Bond, the dish is not hidden under a lake; as it is not a solid disk, this is not even possible! In reality, the entire structure sits over a large sink hole in the interior of the island.
Over time the dish collects various debris and plant growth. In particular, black algae grow along the surface, changing the appearance of the dish. Up until this point, the dish has been cleaned by staff wearing snowshoe-like devices to spread the pressure load over the fragile surface. Along with another undergraduate student, I will be designing a robotic platform to clean the dish while satisfying weight, surface distortion and signal interference constraints.
Due to the nature of a radio telescope, many common devices are prohibited on the Arecibo campus to prevent signal interference. For example, across the labs and on campus living quarters, no one may use a cell phone, microwave oven or Wi-Fi. This constraint has implications for my project as well. I will not be able to wirelessly control the rover as one would drive a remote-controlled car.
During my final days in Colorado I am busy finishing up my mechanical engineering field session and packing lots of bug spray and sunscreen! I hope my future blogs will be much more exciting as I begin to tackle my project, explore the island and meet the locals!