UCF-managed radio telescope in Puerto Rico gets antenna that may let it search for aliens

A multimillion-dollar upgrade may be just what the world’s largest operational radio telescope needs to search for alien intelligence.

Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory, which is managed by a University of Central Florida-led consortium, recently won a $5.8 million award for a new super-sensitive antenna that will enhance the telescope’s observation capabilities by 500 percent.

The National Science Foundation awarded the money to a group of scientists who will design and mount the antenna on the observatory’s 1,000-foot-diameter dish. The team will be led by Brigham Young University engineering professors Brian Jeffs and Karl Warnick, and will include collaborators from UCF and Cornell University, UCF said.

The new antenna will bring with it new possibilities. Other than alien research, the antenna — known as a phased-array feed — will accelerate the facility’s research on gravitational waves, which are produced by catastrophic events in the cosmos, like when two black holes collide. Other research areas will include Fast Radio Bursts, or brief flashes of radio waves that come from deep space, pulsar surveys and dark matter.

“Every galaxy in the universe has an invisible cloud of dark matter around it that we don’t yet understand,” Warnick said in a press release. “This will help solve one of the mysteries of the universe.”

The antenna, which will also allow the observatory to have a much smoother and more continuous view of the sky, will be installed by 2022.

The observatory has been instrumental in scientific studies taking place around the world. NASA uses the facility to study asteroids, for example. UCF and the consortium have been managing the facility since April, when they won a bid from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

The consortium is expected to receive $20 million in federal support over time. In June, UCF got a $2 million grant to repair the observatory, located in the northwestern hill of Puerto Rico, following Hurricane Maria.

The university said it plans on enhancing the programs for students to study space sciences in Central Florida and Puerto Rico with hands-on experience, and creating a tourism program to visit the 18-acre dish set on the island.

cherrera@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5660

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