Telescope Hears The Unseen

The world's most sensitive listening device is about to hear more from the universe.

The radio telescope at Arecibo Observatory, powerful enough to hear a phone conversation on Venus or planets forming several billion light years away, is being upgraded with six more radio receivers to expand the area of space it can explore at any time, scientists said Monday.

Once the $1 million upgrade, nicknamed the "ALFA Project," is completed next year, the observatory's staff of 15 scientists will take on the arduous task of mapping the night sky for future generations.

No map has been made until now because the scale was too big, said observatory director Daniel Altschuler. When finished it will be a "national treasure, a legacy, so to speak."

"We're searching in the dark with a tiny little flashlight, only now we will have a much bigger flashlight," he said. Arecibo expects to find thousands of new pulsars, supernova, black holes and planets, "and some of those are going to be very interesting."

The information gathered will be put into a database scientists worldwide can access by Internet and study on their own, said Tony Acevedo, head of Arecibo's scientific services.

"The idea is that it is public," Acevedo said Monday. "Scientists can use it as they wish."

The observatory and its gargantuan dish, nestled amid the karst hills and sinkholes of central Puerto Rico, were built in 1963 by the Department of Defense to study earth's outer atmosphere. It is now run by Cornell University under the National Foundation of Science.

The 1,000-foot wide parabolic receiver — composed of 38,000 aluminum tiles and stretching the length of 26 football fields — allows researchers to listen to sounds in space instead of depending on optics, like the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope.

The observatory's position near the equator in this U.S. territory provides a better view of passing planets and stars above.

A 1974 discovery of a binary pulsar, or twin neutron stars, led a pair of scientists to win a Nobel Prize in 1993 by proving Albert Einstein's theory of gravity waves. Other finds include ice on Mercury and the first known planets outside our solar system.

Despite the discoveries, the dish is known for its search for extraterrestrials through the SETI Institute, referring to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, making cameo appearances in such films as "Contact" and the James Bond adventure "Golden Eye."

But the only contact made so far has been on the silver screen, and the search for alien life takes up less than 1 percent of the telescope's time.

"That's what most people want to know about," Altschuler said, shrugging. "It's part of our human condition, the desire for knowledge about who we are."

The excitement of new frontiers was dimmed last week by the death of two research students in the Tanama River, about a 2½ hour hike from the observatory. At the observatory grounds — 45 miles (72 kilometers) west of the capital, San Juan — the three flags of the United States, Puerto Rico and National Foundation of Science hung at half-mast.

The bodies of Colin Mike Ewers, 21, of Bloomington, Minnesota, and Kristopher Reilly, 24, of Miami, were found at the base of a 30-foot (9-meter) waterfall. Authorities believe the two had gone swimming in the river and that strong currents sucked them through the rocks.

"These were such nice, bright young people. We chose them for that," Altschuler said.

Aside from the new radio receivers, improvements to the telescope will soon allow it to focus on shorter wavelengths, potentially revealing new space phenomena.

"It's like we're looking at the world and seeing everything in green. Shorter wavelengths means we may see blue as well, metaphorically speaking," said Robert Brown, director of the National Science Foundation's National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center at Cornell.

The observatory each year draws several hundred scientists with research projects.

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