Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Women of Arecibo: Allison Smith

This post marks the launch of Women of Arecibo, a new blog series highlighting the achievements and experiences of women who built their careers around the 305-meter telescope at Arecibo Observatory. In this entry, Allison Smith details the legacy of the observatory, what the fall of the 305-m telescope meant to her, and what comes next. 

written by Allison Smith 

I am a postdoctoral researcher at the Arecibo Observatory, and I study the diffuse interstellar medium of our galaxy with the goal of investigating the atomic to molecular transition of gas as well as how our galaxy accretes gas for star formation. I’m thrilled to have a chance to share with the AASWomen community my story and my experience at the observatory. Please note that I’m sharing my personal perspective only (not my employers), but that the impacts of the observatory and the effects of the loss of the 305-m telescope are far reaching. I look forward to (and am honored to be featured alongside!) other women from many different backgrounds in our community sharing their perspectives during this series of featured posts. 

The legacy of AO and living a dream

For 57 years, the Arecibo Observatory (AO) has made major contributions to three important scientific areas: planetary science, space and atmospheric sciences, and astronomy. Throughout its history, the legacy instrument of AO, the 305-m William E. Gordon telescope, enabled groundbreaking science and held exceptional achievements in these fields. In astronomy, it provided the first views of large-scale structure in the Universe, resolved the Pleiades distance controversy (as a high-sensitivity component of the Very Long Baseline Array), detected the first exoplanet, and measured periastron changes in a binary pulsar system that ultimately provided a confirmation of General Relativity, a study which clinched the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics -- just to name a few!

AO has also long been a training ground for some of the most prominent scientists in these fields, as well as their students. In fact, thousands of STEM students worked on research projects throughout the years with data from the 305-m. Not to mention the tremendous public outreach impact of the Visitor’s Center, which sees nearly 100,000 visitors every year, many of whom are schoolchildren from the island of Puerto Rico.

I was one of more than 350 grad students who used data from the 305-m for my dissertation. My academic heritage intertwines with AO history, and in conjunction with the fact that I’m currently a staff member, I feel I have had, in a sense, a front row seat when it comes to witnessing part of the gigantic legacy of the 305-m as well as its unthinkable demise.

The women of the AO astronomy group on a walk
after lunch. (Left to right: Anna McGilvray, Sravani
Vaddi, and me.)
I arrived in Arecibo, Puerto Rico on January 13th, 2020, while the island was still recovering from a magnitude 6.6 earthquake that occurred a week earlier (which also sent the legacy telescope into shutdown mode and kicked off an earthquake swarm that is technically still ongoing). Nevertheless, I was thrilled to be on site. For exactly two months, I lived my dream, and working at AO was everything I imagined it would be. I loved being immersed in the bustling, vibrant culture of the AO scientific community, doing my own research, and joining my group members’ projects in other fields of astronomy.

However, by March 13th, Puerto Rico entered strict stay-at-home orders for Covid-19 precautions. Despite the uncertainty, the observatory staff rallied and met virtually more frequently than we did on site, even finding a way to use the telescope remotely after curfew by conducting a drift search for mysterious astrophysical phenomena known as Fast Radio Bursts (basically by taking data as the sky rotates overhead). The resilience of the staff and community during this time was inspirational, and things eventually improved. New projects got underway, and Covid-19 safety precautions became better understood which enabled us to make site visits for observing when necessary.

The end of an era

On the morning of August 10, I was happily making my way to the observatory to conduct spectral line observations of Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE with the 305-m. When I reached my office, a colleague gave me some blindsiding news -- mere hours earlier, a platform suspension cable from Tower 4 had failed. No one was hurt, but the nearly 20,000 lb cable had taken out several dish panels, slashed the Gregorian dome (that housed the receivers), and affected the platform position such that the telescope was now out of focus. It was technically fixable, but it would take months in the best case scenario (partially because the cables have to be pre-stretched by the manufacturers for several weeks at a time).

Unfortunately, even though inspections and stabilization efforts were underway, the failure of a second cable on November 7th essentially sealed the telescope’s fate. One of the major load-bearing cables failed in tension, calling into question the stability of the entire platform structure and prohibiting access to areas where repairs would take place.

Suffice it to say that the staff and many in the wider community were reeling with concern. It was during this period that hundreds of community members held weekly (sometimes even daily) meetings, during which everyone including current staff, scientists around the world, and university students in Puerto Rico met to provide support to each other and discuss everything from last-ditch efforts to stabilize the telescope to ideas about how we could proceed as a community in the future if the telescope met the fate we feared it might. And indeed, on the morning of December 1st, 2020, the Sun illuminated the platform in a pinkish glow for the final time as it rose over the Karst mountains, the cables gave way, and the platform fell.

"On the morning of December 1st, 2020, the Sun illuminated the platform in a pinkish glow for the final time as it rose over the Karst mountains, the cables gave way, and the platform fell."

The loss of the 305-m means, for many of us, a partial or complete change in direction in our lines of research. The reality is that there is a tremendous amount of science that can’t be done as efficiently or even at all without the 305-m. It has also had a huge impact on the direction of my personal career in that there were exciting instrumentation upgrades planned this year for astronomy purposes, namely the addition of a 40-pixel phased array feed and an ultra wideband feed. Most of my postdoctoral plans centered on the commissioning and first light observations of those instruments, and I would have gained useful expertise with very state-of-the-art equipment.

To be clear, the observatory is not closing or winding down. The opposite is actually true -- there are many onsite facilities that will be more heavily used (including the 12-m telescope for astronomy), and a lot of plans are in progress for the near and distant future. There will be a workshop in June of 2021 (with an info session on April 2nd) on what the future of the observatory could hold with respect to science, education, and cultural opportunities. Part of that discussion will also likely address whether there will be a new instrument in place of the 305-m. There is certainly widespread interest in a new telescope among the existing scientific community, the Puerto Rican government, and even the general public.

To this end, the AO staff in conjunction with several of the scientific users in our community produced a white paper on the science cases for a new, multidisciplinary telescope concept that we believe would push forward the boundaries of the three branches of AO science. For example, this particular concept would provide exciting opportunities to further constrain dark matter and dark energy, detect and characterize habitable exoplanets, and find new prebiotic molecules in the local and distant Universe. I personally find this possibility very exciting, both with respect to bolstering U.S. radio astronomy in the coming decades with a sophisticated instrument that will complement upcoming facilities around the world, and also with respect to expanding AO’s renowned training ground for the students who would benefit from the facility.

Building the future

My feelings on what we should build at AO are deeply rooted in my experience with the 305-m throughout my academic career. I spent my childhood in rural Georgia in an area that almost made up in dark skies what it lacked in opportunities for a young girl interested in astronomy. I’ve loved astronomy for as long as I can remember, and I recall spending afternoons after school in the county library reading every astronomy book I could find while I waited for my mother to get off work. My parents worked hard to buy a 4-inch refractor that I spent countless nights using in the front yard, documenting in my notebook everything I observed. Nevertheless, it was a surprise to many of the people around me when I decided to major in astrophysics in college, having historically underperformed in those school subjects and been largely afraid of math and most science despite my interest in it. Astrophysics sounded hard. Wouldn’t it make sense to pick something easier, more achievable?

Ellen Howell (Lunar & Planetary Institute/former AO Planetary 
Scientist) and Amy Lovell (Professor, Agnes Scott College) on top 
of the Arecibo platform. They are two of the people who supported 
and encouraged me most when I was a student of astronomy.

With a lot of struggling and tremendous support from my college professors, I kept my head above the water, time passed, and I graduated. I started graduate school with the feeling that I slipped through somehow, I shouldn't be there, and each semester was going to be my last. I now realize that while I started on my academic path motivated by my love for astronomy, it took developing some very defined goals to persist despite the various struggles I encountered in grad school.

When I had my first official research experience with the 305-m telescope at Arecibo Observatory, it effectively became a beacon and gave me goals that I wasn’t willing to give up easily. I wish I could accurately describe the elation I felt at having my first proposal accepted, the excitement of controlling the telescope for the first time, or the confidence I gained by interacting with scientists on site. It was validating to work around scientists I admired and realize that as far as I could tell they saw me as a “normal” grad student who was supposed to have questions and not know everything (or anything, if I’m honest). Arecibo kept me hooked at a time when I needed it most, and if it weren't for my time here as a student, I don’t believe I would have had the confidence or the direction I needed to become a scientist.

My new dream is that we choose to see the tragic loss of the telescope as an opportunity and build a new, multidisciplinary instrument that will both feed the extensive community we have built for 57 years and provide truly next-generation science capabilities for the observatory. We have a unique chance right now to make AO even more attractive and accessible to students of all backgrounds. As we embark on the next steps toward planning AO’s future, I hope at the core of the decision-making is that what we build is more than a cutting-edge telescope or another great legacy for the next generation -- it’s a lifeline for those who need it.

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