Interviews

Angel Vazquez, WP3R, Discusses the Arecibo Observatory Radio Telescope’s Final Moments with Tim Duffy, K3LR 

AA tremor was felt throughout the world’s science and Ham radio communities on December 1 as the 900-ton instrument platform of the Arecibo Observatory’s radio telescope in Puerto Rico broke from its support cables and crashed into its 1,000-foot aluminum spherical reflector dish, signaling the end to this iconic 57-year-old instrument—the second largest of its kind on the planet.

The demise of the telescope touched off a wave of remembrances. Movie buffs recalled the telescope’s Hollywood cameos in GoldenEye and Contact; astrophysicists lauded its contributions to the observation of black holes; and amateur radio operators noted its role in moonbounce experiments and ionospheric research.

The impact of the telescope was summarized in a 2010 article, “Moonbounce from Arecibo Observatory,” written by Joe Taylor, K1JT, 1993 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics and creator of WSJT-X; Jim Breakall, WA3FET, longtime researcher and feed designer for the 1,000-foot dish; and Angel Vazquez, WP3R, head of telescope operations:

“…the big dish is world famous for enabling pioneering studies of the Earth’s atmosphere and ionosphere; of many objects in our solar system including planets, moons, asteroids, and comets; and of erupting stars, clouds of gas, pulsars, galaxies and quasars in much more distant parts of the universe.”

Whether you recall the telescope for its movie appearances (Vazquez gave Jodie Foster a personal tour of the facility during the filming of Contact) or for its Ham radio contributions, it was a sad day, marking the end of nearly six decades of scientific research and discoveries. For his work at the observatory, Vazquez was bestowed the ultimate honor for those who cast their eyes to the heavens—an asteroid that bears his name.

Leading up to the December 1 incident, the National Science Foundation had decommissioned the telescope on November 19 due to safety concerns after failure of its main cable. While the telescope is damaged beyond repair, the facility’s other instruments are in use for continued radio and optic research.

Vazquez, who was in the observatory’s control room when support cables snapped, sat down for a Zoom conversation with Tim Duffy, K3LR, DX Engineering CEO, about the history of the telescope, the events leading up to its final bow, what happened on that fateful day, and his memories of a lifetime spent at the observatory. These include time with Taylor, who, along with Russell Alan Hulse, discovered the first pulsar in a binary system during a survey at Arecibo. The discovery earned the duo the Nobel Prize. Later, Vazquez; Taylor; Breakall; Angel Padilla, WP4G; Patrick Barthelow, AA6EG; and Pedro Piza, Jr., NP4A, operated a historic moonbounce event, April 2010, from the observatory.

The interview features two videos of the December 1 incident, one shot from the observatory’s observation deck and the other via a drone camera.

“We bounced signals off of asteroids, comets, planets. We did radio astronomy. We discovered the first planets outside of the solar system,” Vazquez says during the emotional video. “I was lucky. I’ve got great things to tell my grandkids.”

And be sure to read the comments that accompany the video to get a sense of the importance of the telescope and Vazquez’s work:

“Angel IS The Spirit of Arecibo,” wrote M0KPD. “And that will never fall!!”

Watch the whole video here:

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