What is the Arecibo Message?

A team of astronomers from UCLA searched for "technosignatures" in the Kepler field data. Credit and Copyright: Danielle Futselaar

On November 16th, 1974, a coded radio message was broadcast from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The message contained information on mathematics, humanity, the Solar System, DNA, and the Observatory itself. The destination for this message was Messier 13 (NGC 6205 or “The Great Hercules Cluster”), a globular star cluster located about 25,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Hercules.

This historic signal was the Arecibo Message, humanity’s first attempt at Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI). Almost fifty years later, the Message remains a focal point in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), the ethics of messaging, and why we haven’t heard from any extraterrestrial civilization (the Fermi Paradox). What’s more, a growing movement today would like to see more METI efforts mounted in the future.

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Arecibo’s Damage is so Serious and Dangerous, They’re Just Going to Scrap the Observatory Entirely

Credit: UCF

This past summer, the Arecibo Observatory suffered major damage when an auxiliary cable that supports the platform above the telescope broke and struck the reflector dish. Immediately thereafter, technicians with the observatory and the University of Central Florida (UCF) began working to stabilize the structure and assess the damage. Unfortunately, about two weeks ago (on Nov. 6th), a second cable broke causing even more damage.

Following a thorough review, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) announced that the observatory cannot be stabilized without risking the lives of construction workers and staff at the facility. As such, after 57 years of faithful service and countless contributions to multiple fields of astronomy, the NSF has decided to commence plans for decommissioning the Arecibo Observatory.

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A Broken Cable Smashed Part of the Arecibo Observatory

Damage at the Arecibo Observatory in August, 2020. Credit: NSF/NAIC

The Arecibo Observatory is an iconic institution. Located in Puerto Rico, this National Science Foundation (NSF) observatory was the largest radio telescope in the world between 1963 and 2016. While that honor now goes to the Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in China, Arecibo will forever be recognized for its contributions to everything from radio astronomy to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

Unfortunately, the Arecibo Observatory suffered serious damage when on Monday, Aug. 10th, an auxiliary cable that supports the platform suspended above the telescope reflector dish broke. The cable struck the Gregorian Dome (which sits on the underside of the platform) before landing on the reflector dish, which created a gash over 30 meters (100 feet) in length and forced the observatory to temporarily shut down operations.

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