Remote RF Telescope Bring Sci-Fi To Reality

By John Blyler

The huge RF radio observatory at Arecibo, Puerto Rico has all of the key ingredients for a high-tech adventure movie. First, its location is remote, as it’s buried deep within the rainforest of a Caribbean island. Second, the sheer size of the radio telescope renders it sublime. It measures 305 m (1001 ft.) in diameter and more than 500 m from the jungle floor to the top of the moveable radio feed platform (see Figure 1). Unlike other astronomic R&D facilities in the United States, the observatory at Arecibo also is more than just a radio telescope. It also is a complete R&D facility. Its mission - in part - is to search for the stuff of science fiction stories ranging from extraterrestrials and gravity waves to asteroids that could devastate the Earth.

We will return to the cool sci-fi aspects of Arecibo later. For now, let’s explore the technology that makes all of this possible - starting with an overview of the RF telescope and the critical electronics. Radio astronomy studies celestial objects using radio transmissions. Often traveling great distances, these radio waves are reflected from the objects of study. The returning signal is analyzed and developed into amazing images. Although this may seem like a straightforward task, the returning signal is typically so weak as to be almost indiscernible from the cosmic noise.

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