As Hurricane Maria slams Puerto Rico with devastating force, scientists at the historic Arecibo Observatory are among the millions of people being battered by the storm.
A spokeswoman for the National Science Foundation, which owns the massive radio telescope, said that all on-site staff were safe as of 8am Wednesday.
Monitors on the observatory’s platform recorded wind speeds of 90 miles (144 km) per hour, and multiple trees had been knocked down.
The eye of the storm is expected to pass just east of Arecibo early Wednesday afternoon.
The observatory in the northwestern municipality of Arecibo is the world’s second-largest radio telescope. The 1,000-foot primary dish, built into a sinkhole in a mountain range, has been used to discover the first exoplanets and detect organic molecules in a galaxy millions of light-years away.
It’s where the fictional astronomer Ellie Arroway got her start in the movie “Contact”, and where real scientists Frank Drake, Jill Tarter and Carl Sagan, among others, launched efforts to detect extraterrestrial life.
The observatory has been closed since Monday so staff and researchers could make preparations for the storm. A small group of facilities personnel and management will be sent back Thursday afternoon to inspect for damage, according to NSF spokeswoman Aya Collins.
If conditions are good and the road to the observatory is clear, the NSF hopes to resume normal scientific operations Friday.
Planetary scientist Ed Rivera-Valentín said he and several others would be riding out the storm at Arecibo. On Tuesday evening, he tweeted weather data taken from the observatory platform that showed the telescope being buffeted by ever-faster winds.
Radio astronomer Robert Minchin shared photos of people putting wooden and metal storm shutters over the control room windows.
The Web page that Rivera-Valentín had shared displaying weather data from the observatory was also offline Wednesday.
Suraiya Farukhi of the Universities Space Research Association, which helps manage Arecibo, said they lost contact with their staff around 4am
“We are all waiting to hear from Arecibo, and we haven’t heard anything,” Farukhi said later Wednesday morning.
“The website is down, the phone lines are down.”
On Tuesday, cameras on board the International Space Station captured dramatic video of Hurricane Maria as it swirled toward Puerto Rico – a churning mass of white clouds punctuated by a dark pinhole of an eye.