If everything I knew about Arecibo, I learned from watching the James Bond flick, Golden Eye, I would be sorely disappointed when I arrived in Cuba and couldn’t find the telescope. (I am not sure how I got to Cuba, seeing as I am a U.S. citizen; perhaps I joined a dance troupe that was allowed a visit in order to learn an authentic rumba.) The world’s largest, single-dish radio telescope is NOT in Cuba, but in the Puerto Rican jungle, just south of the town of Arecibo. The location was chosen for two reasons: 1) if you are going to put a 305-m dish in the ground, you might as well put it in a place where there’s a hole! The karst terrain in Puerto Rico is full of natural sink holes. 2) The observatory was constructed near the equator (where all of the planets in our solar system are visible) so that the radar used to study the ionosphere could also be used for planetary observations.
If everything I knew about Arecibo, I learned from Golden Eye, I would expect a sleek, state-of-the-art, enormous control room. In reality, the control room is pretty state-of-the-art – no complaints there – but I would not exactly call it sleek. There is a bookshelf full of supposed entertainment for observers that I have NEVER seen anyone touch, like CDs of Bette Midler and The Best of Herbie Hancock, or a board game called India with no instructions. There are also the sounds! There are speakers that broadcast the audio happenings inside the dome and at the tie-downs (the cables that keep the platform steady), and occasionally a stray coqui will get trapped and sing for the observers all night. Also, if you abort an observation, you hear the loud sound of a toilet flushing. Speaking of flushing toilets ….
If everything I knew about Arecibo, I learned from Golden Eye, I would think the dish filled with water when it was not in use. Not only is this totally untrue, it’s impossible! The dish is not actually solid, but is made up of almost 40,000 aluminum panels (each 3 feet by 6 feet) that are all individually adjusted to maintain the spherical curvature of the dish. Here is a photo taken from underneath to give you an idea of the openness of the panels:
To find out more “real” facts about the observatory that don’t come from a movie starring Pierce Brosnan, watch Contact instead! No, just kidding. Check out the observatory’s official homepage.