Arecibo Radiotelescope: The Thousand-foot Dish

 

Waves have gone flat, finally, so we’re gonna drive out to look at the radiotelescope that’s located inland from Arecibo. World’s largest device of its type, and not by a small margin, either. I’ve ALWAYS wanted to see this thing and it looks like maybe today I’ll finally get my chance.

I go and check the internet to see if I can get a listing of the times that it’s open to the public, and what I find says 12noon to 4pm on Friday, which it is, but I’m not sure if I quite believe it. Might be an old web page. Who knows?

We piddle around and depart around 8am and my intention is to take a side drive up to Wilderness to check the general vicinity up there. Lisa is dog tired from her previous four days in a row of surfing, and is moaning and groaning about a variety of physical complaints. I’ve had a crick in my neck for the last two days, so neither one of us is all that bright-eyed or bushy-tailed.

Weather remains stupefyingly perfect. Warm, very light winds, no clouds in the sky. On our way outbound toward Aguada, I decide to look for the road to a surfspot I’ve seen before, just to be able to find it if I need to.

I blunder around for a few wrong turns and generalized failed attempts to get where I want to go, and then finally hit it right. Nice setup. The wind is flawless for this place today, and despite the very small size, you can tell that it’s definitely got what it takes. The waist high sets are coming in with ruler-edged cleanliness, and you can see them warping around outside over the reefs, bowling into peaks here and there.

It’s a fairly large area, with several distinct breaks. One left in particular just reels on every wave, but from the looks of the teency size of the soups toward the end of things, it’s lucky if it’s even a foot deep out there. This is not the kind of place where you’d want to fall off of a surfboard. I’m still waiting to see my first “user-friendly” bottom in PR, and this place most likely isn’t going to break that streak. The fucker has a look about it like it would cheerfully lacerate your sorry ass right into the hospital if you were to make a wrong move.

Lisa likes the shape of the waves, but doesn’t like anything else at all about the place. My guess is that with a little more size, it might move off of the supershallow part of the reef and permit a decent ride or two. Wouldn’t want to get caught inside, though. Things could go from blissful to bloody in an alarmingly short period of time.

Nobody around, anywhere, and the solitude is quite nice. Got this one filed away in the memory banks against some future day.

Back on the road and we take the turn at the Indians, and the traffic starts to thicken up heavily. By the time we reach the cutoff to get to Route 2, we discover the problem. The cutoff to Route 2 is closed. Feh.

So we drive down toward the center of Aguadilla for a few blocks, then say, “The hell with this,” and do a U-turn.

Back down to the Indians and take the turn to get on 2 headed toward Mayaguez, hoping to loop around down there somewhere and then be on our way.

First problem: It takes about five miles to find a turn around spot. Concrete barricade down the centerline of the highway preventing any thoughts of turning around until we reach an intersection. Second problem: as we get back to where we should have entered 2 the first time, we see that it’s solid cars off into the distance. So we just ease along at a walking speed, along with everybody else. They’ve decided to do some roadwork this morning and it’s got everything bottled up.

Ah well, nothing for it. Takes a full hour to get to the cutoff toward Wilderness, which we decide not to take. Time is running out and it’s already after 10am.

So we bomb on down 2 toward Arecibo. Skip everything else. Get to the end of 2, where the autopista starts, 22 este, and damned if I don’t manage to miss the turn and remain on 2 right on in to downtown Arecibo!

But I’ve been down this road before and I realize my idiotic mistake in less than a mile, and get it turned around back oeste in short order.

Finally hit the damned expressway. Immediately get whacked for a dollar toll. And then we highball it eastbound, looking for signs to route 129 or anything that says “observatorio.”

Soon enough, we find our exit and we’re southbound, toward the interior. They’ve changed the signage since last year when I attempted this, and it’s a noticeable improvement. Catch the left turn off of 129 just like I’m supposed to, and immediately realize that things don’t look right.

I’m in Tarzan Country IMMEDIATELY, on one of those psychotic little roads like last time, instead of a more sedate introduction to the back country of PR like I remembered from before. We wind along on the stupidly dangerous little road, barely missing a few oncoming cars on the hairpin turns slotted down into the limerock cliff face, which is right there, a door handle’s width away, and finally get to a spot where we can turn around and try this again.

Back to 129. Head farther off into the interior until I’m satisfied that I probably hit the turn correctly the first time. Around and back we go. Sure enough, at the same little cutoff turn, there’s another sign that says “observatorio.” So this is the turn and that’s that. They’ve not only changed the signage, they’ve changed the access road. Whatever.

So here we go through what is blandly called “Karst Topography.” There’s nothing bland about it.

The land heaves and plummets with no more rhyme or reason than George Bush’s foreign policy.

Peaks, chasms, slopes, dips, cliffs, and all manner of absurdly vertical terrain for our one and a half lane road to work its way through. Full-tilt Tarzan jungle out there, carpeting the psychotic geology beneath a dense overburden of trees, vines, ferns, …you name it.

Any and all oncoming cars are an exciting adventure, as we attempt to pass one another without A.) colliding, or B.) going over a cliff, or C.) scraping the side off the car against the wall of rock inches away on the other side. Interesting driving. The road is NARROW. Lisa gets spooked, naturally, and advises me to slow down. Ok, sure. Not that it matters any, but if it makes you a little less jumpy, then ok.

In places, the psychosis of the land abates a little, and you can see cow pastures with nice well-fed cows. Houses all over the damned place, clinging to the land as best they can. What DO these people DO out here for a living? Damned if I can figure it out.

The road eventually widens out to a proper two-lane width, and the extra space makes it seem like a sixteen lane interstate highway. But the switchback hairpin turns and cars coming our way, careening abruptly up out of the earth as they pass over the top of the next rise, continue to make the driving a full red-alert event.

We eventually take a turn on to a road that I recognize from my previous attempt to see the telescope, last year. Ok then, we’re headed the right way.

More asphalt lunacy, and finally we can see the enormous concrete pylons that support the secondary antenna structures of the device, looming above the jungle in the distance. Won’t be long now.

We pull up to the gate area, and lo and behold, there’s cars parked, and even a couple of school busses. Fucker’s open today! I’m gonna get to see it! Hallelujah!

We arrive at eight minutes to noon, so I guess the info I plucked off the net about a 12:00pm opening time this morning is accurate enough. Everybody is hanging around, waiting for the guards to open the gate, which they do, right on the dot at twelve.

Thankfully, the schoolbusses full of screaming children remain over on the far end of the lot, with the teachers continuing to organize, as best they can, their most very unruly charges.

We walk through the open gate, just behind the main group of waiting people, gringos for the most part, and only a couple of dozen or so.

Most folks just can’t seem to get up a proper interest in something like the world’s largest radiotelescope, unless, I suppose, the thing was able to pick up a good signal from the local Fox Network affiliate. Most folks, of course, are stupider than the cattle we drove past on the way up here. Fox can have them. And the dish ain’t gonna be pulling in any goddamned media droppings today or any other day, so my advice is for all of you fucks to stay put on the couch, right where the multinational conglomerates want you, ok?

We walk through the gate, and along the side of the little roadway, and off on our right is an abyss that’s lousy with trees and vines, which do a fair job of hiding the lurking plummet at our sides. The cliff face on the other side of the road has nothing to hide it with, and just sort of hulks over us as we walk.

Up we go until we reach another parking area, and by now Lisa is in full groan, with numerous complaints about her hip, her tiredness, her whatever. There’s a uniformed guy at the end of this parking lot and he says that a bus will be along shortly, to take the tired, the weak, the infirm, and the lazy the rest of the way up, to which I reply with a curt, “No thanks.” More moans from Lisa, but I’m already around the railing, on to the steep slope that continues on toward the visitor center, hidden behind the mass of rock that we’re going to be sort of switchbacking around to the left to ascend. The bulk of the rock looming above us has blocked the tropical rays of the sun, and it’s downright pleasant walking along in the shade.

Things get interesting immediately. They’ve got a little scale model of the solar system, and the Sun is a yellow metal ball, maybe a foot across, maybe not, on top of a metal pole. The pole comes up from a concrete emplacement that has the orbits, names, and symbols for the innermost six planets inscribed upon it. Cool. Lisa ignores it all and trudges along up the slope behind me.

If you’re one of those curious sorts who might be wondering why they only have the six INNERMOST planets included in their little scale model, well that’s a fine question. The answer consists in the fact that this is a actual SCALE MODEL, with everything set out at the proper relative sizes, and with a Sun that scales down to about a foot across, there’s not enough room for the outer planets to fit into this area, despite the sprawling size of it all.

Our foot-across Sun represents a scaled-down million mile wide seething-hot nuclear furnace. The earth is ninety-three million miles from the sun, so it’s gonna have to be ninety-three feet away, right? Jupiter and Saturn are off completely around the bend somewhere, way the hell away from where we’re walking.

Mercury comes by first, and is embedded within an upstanding metal and concrete deal with identifying name and planetary symbol upon it, with a weency little clear resin aperture in it, about eye level for our viewing comfort, and sprinkled with sparkles to represent stars, I guess. Mercury itself, and remember now children, Mercury is a whole fucking planet, a whole WORLD; is this teeny tiny little dark speck of a thing, embedded within the clear resin. Maybe the size of a pinhead. About twenty or thirty or I don’t know how many, feet away from the Sun. Lisa trudges past, unaware of the marvel at her left elbow.

We pass the rest of the rocky worlds of the inner solar system, still upward bound on the path, and then take a switchback to the right. Now we’re out of the shade, and the heat is on.

Even from ninety-three million miles away, that fucking nuclear furnace can really put out the heat. The people who run this place have thoughtfully placed a little bus stop of a rest station along the way and Lisa plumps herself down, next to a trio of other folks who also could use the rest. I’m wired with excitement at finally being here at one of my lifetime destinations, and the thought of sitting down doesn’t even enter my head. We still can’t really see anything, except those otherworldly-looking pylons, looming in the distance.

Ok, Lisa’s sort of rested, so it’s on we go.

Finally, we’re outside of a building, with a ticket window next to the door. Five bucks a head. Hell of a fucking deal! On the other side of the door, a blast of air conditioning knocks the heat right off of us. Inside, you get your usual museum style displays. Meteorites, descriptions of the radiotelescope, galaxies and asteroids, and all the rest. There’s a fair crowd of people inside and I wander perfunctorily around, already probably knowing more about this facility than what these displays might be able to offer me, and a spot check of a couple of them reveals that to be the case.

Lisa continues to tag along with zero interest evident. Where’s the fucking telescope? Upstairs? Nope. Over here? Nope. There? Nope. Well what the fuck? So I finally go back to the counter where the pretty girl took our tickets, and ask her.

“At the end of the hall, past the bathrooms.”

Ok, sure. Whatever. And so it is. You walk past the bathrooms, which are none too centrally located, and a completely anonymous little hallway past them leads to a completely anonymous doorway, with a very small sign upon it advising that the telescope is on the other side. Cool beans.

The sonofabitchis WAY bigger than this puny photograph makes it look.
It's bigger than this makes it look. Lots bigger, in fact.

Back outside, into the blistering heat of the noonday sun. You cross a small concrete plaza with a railing on the far side and a vendor over to the right selling cool drinks and such. Directly ahead of you, hanging against the sky, is the secondary antenna support structure, suspended upon very heavy cables that are stretched as tight as a violin string, extending from the tops of the three absurdly-tall support pylons, out over an empty gulf of thin air. It’s as big and complicated as a gantry at a fucking launch pad, out on Cape Canaveral, and it just sort of dangles there, in mid-air.

Where’s the damned dish?

That 'post' in the middle distance is actually over a hundred meters tall!
It's hard to judge the scale from looking at this picture, but maybe you'll have a better idea when you realize that the 'post' over there in the distance is 365 feet tall!

Ohhhhhhhhhhh, THERE it is.

And holy shit, let me tell you, there it is!

Our little visitor’s center turns out to live at the top of a cliff, and (until you reach the railing at its edge) it’s the cliff that’s hiding the thousand-foot-wide dish, down in the bottom of the fortuitously-shaped hollow in the Karst topography that’s the reason why this whole damned thing is out here in Jurassic Park in the first place.

Holy fuck, it’s ridiculously outsize!

If it was a UFO, the world would be conquered in seconds flat.
I'm just glad it's not a UFO, come to conquer the world

Your eyes fail to grasp the full extent of the thing at first, and you find that you have to drink it in bit by bit, assembling each new stunningly gargantuan subassembly into an even more superlatively stunningly stupefyingly gigantic whole.

Looks like something out of a science fiction movie that had a director who was dropping acid.

Weirder even.

And that’s just the surface appearance of things.

For those of us who know what this rig is capable of, and the insight to imagine what it’s doing right now, in utter silence, the mind just sort of goes into boggle mode and partially shuts down.

Whispers left over from Creation itself are even now invisibly falling out of the sky and down on to that fantastic, colossal dish.

The dish, despite being acres in extent, has a sublimely well-crafted shape, that funnels the whispers back up toward that impossible, million pound (said so, right there on a sign, and I believe ‘em when they say it), contraption hanging in mid-air directly above it.

Million pounds of gear, suspended five hundred feet above the dish.
Million pounds of gear, suspended five hundred feet up in the air, above that cycloptic dish down below.

Secondary antennas hanging from the contraption, each of which is colossal in its own right, then absorb the whispers and send them through waveguides and wires, to hidden rooms, near and far, where people and machines pluck every last nugget of information out of them, seeking the answers to riddles that are as old as mankind itself.

Whoa!

Heavy, dude!

Out comes the camera, and now I’m faced with the small matter of figuring out how to fit this, this, THING, down inside my own little digital receiver. I give up and just attempt to get pieces of it.

Lots of pieces. Wound up taking 110 frames in my futile attempt to somehow capture at least a part of the essence of it. While all that’s going on, I see that Lisa seems to also be captivated by this bizarre machine in the middle of nowhere, but the relentless sun pushes her under the awning at the edge of the building, away from the cliff face, where she can regroup a little.

Crew of technicians, riding the gondola up into the suspended structure, on their way to work.
Tech crew, on their way to work

And, miracle of miracles, as I’m pointing my camera this way and that, and just generally gawping at things, I notice a small gondola on a steep wire, connected at its top to the secondary antenna support structure, slowly coming up from around below the cliff face, and there’s PEOPLE in it!

The antenna is in the distance beyond the guys in the gondola, so of course it's still bigger than it looks.
The antenna is distant beyond the guys in the gondola, so of course it still looks smaller than it really is

Finally, I’ve got something to give this crazy brobdingnagian amalgamation of concrete, steel, and aluminum some SCALE!

People!

And just as soon as that idea settles into my still spinning head, the scale of things takes hold, and all that sits before me expands yet again, into a size that just flat stops me cold for a moment.

I snap out of it in time to holler over to Lisa, “Come here! Quick!”

She at first doesn’t seem to understand the urgency of my request it her sun-dazed condition, but she gets up and lurches over to me and I tell her there’s PEOPLE out there, LOOK! “Where?” “Right there,” and I point to the gondola, now suspended half way between earth and sky, climbing toward the eerie insectoid snarl of wires and girders, and I can see that it’s having a similar effect on her, too.

She marvels at it for as long as her fatigue permits, and then the sun has its way with her and she retires to the shade.

The gondola disappears into the heart of the secondary support structure, and the people get out of it, and begin to move around on the catwalks and stairways that I can now see lacing the entire apparatus.

   

Anonymous white boxes reveal themselves to be full-size trailers with doors in them, that people open up and walk inside of.

The machine just keeps on getting larger and larger as the three technicians go about their daily chores high above a lethal drop into a thousand-foot hole in the earth, lined with aluminum.

God, what I’d give to be able to walk around up there on that motherfucker with those guys.

Underslung beneath the mammoth steel framework, two very large antennas share space on a long curving rail.

The mother of all Ray-guns.
The Mother of all Ray-guns

One antenna is long and thin, and is composed of a great number of circular disks stacked one above the other for about a hundred feet of malevolent-looking stinger. Goddamned thing looks like the mother of all ray guns, pointed downward at a slight angle, menacing a defenseless Earth below it.

Wasp's nest. BIG goddamned wasps.
Wasp's nest. BIG goddamned wasps!

The other one is even weirder.

Actually it’s just the enclosure. The antennas inside of it remain invisible. But the container that holds them looks just as sinister, in its own way, as the Mother of All Rayguns.

It’s a geodesic dome of sorts. It’s hemispherical in shape, hangs down from the support truss with its wide end facing the prodigious dish below, and its lower side is covered by a sort of slightly convex enclosure, with a large hole in it that’s offset to one side.

It looks like nothing more in the world than a stupendous wasp’s nest, and the thought of wasps the size of boxcars buzzing angrily in the air around it, crawling about on the support structure, and entering and leaving their nest through that hole, sends a shiver down the back of my neck.

This fucking place is WEIRD, goddamnit!

Big dish. Goddamned big motherfucking dish.
Just sits there, out in the weather, completely exposed

Below, the dish is surprisingly weatherworn in appearance, and I suppose that the radio waves that bounce off of it back up to all the strangeness above it do not care in the least if the shiny finish on the aluminum panels has lost its luster sitting out in the elements for a decade or two.

There’s a few small holes in the dish, here and there.

Three, square in aspect, looking smaller than the size of the holes in a pepper shaker, admit cabling that plummets straight down from booms that extend outward from the corners of the great triangular truss that supports all the rest of that……whatever it is……that hangs overhead.

And I suddenly realize that this whole monstrosity is stretched even tauter than I had first considered, when looking at the line-straight cables coming across from the giant pylons anchored in the bedrock, outboard of the dish. The cables that dive straight down into those square holes in the dish are pulling the whole million pound rigamaroo downwards for all they are worth. Ye gods! I know they want to keep this thing steady, the better to aim the antennas with sub-arcsecond accuracy, but holy cow, what happens if it all comes crashing down?

Nevermind, I don’t want to know.

That's a ladder, and a pair of specialty shoes for walking on the aluminum panels. Helps for getting the scale of the dish.
Locate this hole in the picture above and to the left for some scale. Tha'ts a ladder climbing up out of the hole on the right, and next to it is a pair of specialty shoes for walking on the aluminum panels of the dish.

Very near the center of the dish, is another small hole.

This one is slot shaped, and over on its right side, there’s a bit of something or other right next to it. And then, after squinting at it for a bit longer, I realize that this miniscule slot could easily admit a fucking bass boat, lowered by its edge longways, right down into the gloom beneath the panels that make up the skin of the dish!

What’s sitting there right next to this slot are a pair of the weirdie “snowshoes” that the techs have to wear when walking upon the dish’s surface to distribute their weight widely enough to keep from distorting the el-perfecto shape of that enormous aluminum-skinned sphereoid.

And at the edge of the slot itself?

Why that’s a fucking ladder that protrudes up from the depths below, that the guy who’d be putting those goofy “snowshoes” on would have to climb to get up on top of the dish itself.

And once again, the whole fucking thing expanded on me as this additional sledgehammer of scale hit home.

More gawping, and then a raucous hoard of schoolchildren in matching yellow shirts swarms the area. And then I hear an announcement on the p.a. system advising that the English language version of the movie that tells people about the place is about to begin inside the auditorium inside the nice quiet air conditioned building.

Well ok, then, let’s get out of this heat, humidity, and humanity, and go watch the flick.

It runs for twenty minutes, and instead of just dryly droning on about millisecond pulsars, thirteen billion year old radio waves, klystrons and kilohertz; it instead just sort of does a “day in the life” of the device itself. People come and go, science gets done, meals get cooked, shit works, shit breaks, and shit happens. Nicely done, if you ask me, and at no point does it attempt to beat you over the head with a bunch of “gee-whiz” hogwash like so very many of these sorts of presentations want to do. I give it a thumbs up, and Lisa seems to like it too. So I guess that’s two thumbs up, right?

Two hundred sixty-five feet of concrete and steel. One of three that holds up the secondary antenna support structure.
This tower was "only" 265 feet tall

Ok, show’s over folks, back outside. And so we go.

The schoolchildren have disappeared. Neato.

And, thankfully, by now the daily buildup of cumulus has begun to block the sun. Not only that, I get yet another slap of scale across the face as I realize that the dark blotches I can now see on the dish are the shadows of WHOLE FUCKING CLOUDS, fitting nicely within the circumference of the metal bowl.

Loopy.

That’s about all I can say about this damned place. The fucker’s LOOPY!

With the sun blocked, the temperature calms down to a nicely bearable level, and Lisa responds by remaining out from under the awning, staring, asking questions, remarking on this or that, and just generally getting taken in by the whole uncanny ambience of the place.

And so we tarry a while longer in this most uncanny of locales. It is good. But finally time to go, and go we must. A final wave toward the Great Machine, and then we turn and head back down the way we came.

Much easier without the blazing sun and on a downhill trajectory.

We walk past Jupiter, sitting in it’s resin encasement, somewhat smaller than a ping pong ball (Never did find Saturn. Who knows where it wound up?), and I once again attempt to engage Lisa in the stupefying size and emptiness of our solar system, and although she affirms that she “gets it,” the look on her face (or more properly the lack of a certain look) informs me that we’re not there yet.

Down we go, and when we get to Mars, a glimmer of proper understanding begins to invade her face.

A few steps on, and here’s good old terra firma, Mother Earth.

It contains EVERYTHING and EVERYBODY that’s ever lived, a few small moonshots out to an inch or so away not withstanding.

And now I can see the dawning of proper understanding starting to fill Lisa’s face.

This is it, kiddo. The whole shebang. Sitting there painted light blue inside its resin encasement, it’s just about the size of a peppercorn. Maybe stop reading this right here, go into the kitchen, and find the whole unground, black pepper. Each one of them little shriveled up round things is a peppercorn. Your home planet.

Plenty big enough to hold all of human history and lots more. Every triumph, every tragedy. All the love and hate you could possibly imagine.

Floating forlornly alone with a couple of specks of dirt the toss of a stone away, with a shrunken ping pong ball back uphill around the corner and a yellow basketball downstairs a bit, just shy of a hundred feet away.

And that’s it.

That’s all you get.

Everything you’ll ever do or be, right here and nowhere else.

Realization continues to soak into Lisa’s face.

We walk past Venus, and all that’s left is Mercury. This time, its pinhead size does its intended job and Lisa is left thunderstruck by the horrific loneliness of it all.

We’d been talking on and off over the last few days about the odds of alien life forms ever making it to something like the earth, and I’ve been going over and over the hopelessness of the odds of such a thing ever happening.

Too much time.

Too much space.

Not enough Earth.

And so, as we depart, I take a moment to remind her that in the great scheme of things, our solar system is the crowded part.

Out into the cold between the stars, the loneliness REALLY takes over.

There’s nothing at all to be found out there.

Lisa has a much better appreciation of things now, and although it’s humbling in the extreme, it has its uses.

We depart through the jungle, but don’t see Tarzan this time, either. Roll home and check the waves.

Still flat.

Ah well.

Photosampler of the Waves We Rode
 

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