At 6:36am local time on Saturday, December 8, Puerto Rico began scanning deep space again. A skeletal crew of beleaguered Arecibo Observatory staff, following nearly two weeks of around-the-clock preparation, re-fired the Arecibo Observatory radio telescope, and the planetary radar. The telescope had been silent since April, when the only suspended steel platform in Puerto Rico began a painting facelift.
The first observations used the planetary radar to probe an asteroid, known as 3200 Phaethon. Phaethon approaches the sun more closely than any other numbered asteroid -- roughly two times closer to the sun than the planet Mercury. Phaethon is especially interesting because it may actually be a comet -- and a fragment of the cometary parent of the ``Geminid Meteor Shower'', which causes many ``shooting stars'' in our skies between now and Christmas. This Phaethon parentage is likely, since the orbit of Phaethon is the same as the Geminid meteor stream that produces the meteor shower.
The crew working to bring the 1000-foot telescope with its 900-ton focal platform suspended 50 stories above the ground, was able to bring all motion, electronic, transmitting, receiving, and computing systems into operation in less than two weeks - even though their numbers have been reduced nearly twofold by recent budget cuts and layoffs.
In an another important step to full operation, the ALFA receiver array was lifted into position this morning, and is bolted into position.