Signals from the Cosmic Frontier

Article excerpt

With new technology and modern research facilities Latin America is making valuable contributions to space exploration

IN 1517, A GREAT COMET suddenly appeared in the skies over Mexico. The Aztec ruler Moctezuma, terrified by the legend of Quetzalcoatl--the mythical, white-skinned warrior god from across the sea--executed his astrologers, who had failed to predict the heavenly phenomenon. "Certain of forthcoming disaster, Moctezuma became distant and gloomy," writes Carl Sagan in his best-selling book, Cosmos. "Aided by the superstition of the Aztecs and their own superior technology, an armed party of 400 Europeans and their native allies in the year 1521 entirely vanquished and utterly destroyed a high civilization of a million people." No doubt Moctezuma would be amazed at how far Latin America astronomy has come since his lifetime.

From Arecibo, Puerto Rico, to the Atacama Desert of Chile, powerful optical and radio telescopes scan the distant heavens for planets and quasars, probing for clues to the origins of the universe and searching for signs of extraterrestrial life. Observatories have also been set up in Argentina and Brazil, where government-run space agencies design satellites for telecommunications and atmospheric research. And in Brazil's tiny neighbor to the north, French Guiana, European scientists have built one of the most important satellite-launching centers in the world.

Roberto Cuna is international affairs coordinator at Institutio de Pesquisas Espaciais (INPE), Brazil's government-run space agency and the largest institute of its kind in Latin America. A division of the Science and Technology Secretariat, INPE is 30 years old, employs 1,400 people and has a fiscal 1992 budget of $87 million. "Our main areas are space science, space technology and space applications," said Cuna. For several years, the Brazilian Air Force has been launching small sounding rockets for ozone measurements from its own rocket facilities in Alcantara and Natal. But this summer, he said, Brazil plans to launch its first homegrown orbiting satellite, a $20 million data-collecting platform known as SCD-1. "We had telecommunications satellites before, but they were developed in Canada, not Brazil," remarks Cuna.

One of INPE's most interesting projects is the Itapetinga Observatory, home of the Center for Radio Astronomy and Space Applications, which is jointly run by INPE and three local universities. According to Pierre Kaufmann, executive director of the observatory, the center has a long history. "We do radio astronomy, radio physics and Antarctic research. We also use very long baseline infrared telemetry techniques for studying the Earth's rotation and support many other cartographic applications." But, he adds, "these days we work for almost nothing." Because of economic hard times in Brazil, more than a dozen scientists have left the Sao Paulo facility for higher-paying jobs in the private sector. Nevertheless, the center is building what Kaufmann calls "a very fancy radio astronomy facility" in Fortaleza, in northeastern Brazil. Simply put, radio astronomy is the detection and study of celestial objects using low-energy radio waves emitted by pulsars, quasars and other mysterious phenomena. But radio astronomy also has applications closer to home. The Fortaleza center, partly funded by a $3 million grant from the U.S. Geodetic Survey, will monitor absolute sea level changes, a measurement crucial to the long-term study of global warming.

Some 4,000 kilometers to the northwest, hidden among the mountains of Puerto Rico, sits the most sensitive radio telescope on Earth. The Arecibo Observatory, operated by Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, is so huge it can be seen from a jumbo jet 33,000 feet in the air. Yet, it is so obscured from ground level that first-time visitors need a detailed map to find the only road leading to its guarded entrance.

Earlier this year, the Arecibo facility gained world prominence when one of its scientists announced what he said was the first proof ever of planets outside our own solar system. …