A crucial cable at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico recently broke—the second such cable to snap in three months.
The loss of the cable means the giant telescope will be demolished.
Some parts of Arecibo will eventually reopen.
Update 11/19/20 12:10 p.m. EST: The National Science Foundation (NSF), which operates the Arecibo Observatory along with the University of Central Florida, announced on Thursday that it plans to decommission and demolish the famed radio telescope.
After conducting a safety assessment of the damaged observatory, the NSF has determined that it would not be able to safely fix the dish.
"Until these assessments came in, our question was not if the observatory should be repaired, but how," Ralph Gaume, director of NSF's Division of Astronomical Sciences, said in a statement. "But in the end, a preponderance of data showed that we simply could not do this safely. And that is a line we cannot cross."
Instead, the NSF will focus efforts on developing the station's education and outreach facilities. Once disassembly of the dish is complete, the visitor center, Arecibo Observatory LIDAR facility, and an offsite facility that studies cloud formation, will reopen.
Is there an astronomy gremlin lurking at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico? For the second time this year, an important cable broke at the world's largest radio telescope, damaging the reflecting dish and putting the structure at the brink of collapse. The second cable snapped on November 6, just three months after an auxiliary cable failed at the same facility.
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Perhaps most famous for its search for extraterrestrial life (as depicted in the movie Contact), Arecibo is home to one of the most powerful radio telescopes on Earth. The telescope consists of a 1,000-foot-wide (305 meters) stationary reflecting dish and a 900-ton receiver platform floating above.
The receiver platform is suspended by massive steel cables that can hold 1.2 million pounds. However, after the auxiliary cable slipped out of its socket in August, a primary cable later succumbed to the added stresses, snapping and falling onto the reflector dish below and causing further damages.
“This is certainly not what we wanted to see, but the important thing is that no one got hurt,” Francisco Cordova, the director of the observatory, said in a press release.
So far, Arecibo has stood the test of time since it was built in the 1960s. The observatory has endured hurricanes, tropical storms, and earthquakes, but some scientists are worried this most recent failure could bring its downfall.
“As someone who depends on Arecibo for my science, I’m frightened,” Scott Ransom, an astronomer at the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves, told the Associated Press. “It’s a very worrisome situation right now. There’s a possibility of cascading, catastrophic failure.”
The two cable failures have put a dead halt on observing at Arecibo since August. More than 250 scientists use its instruments each year, providing important insights into our universe.
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Arecibo is considered the world’s most powerful planetary radar system and is critical to NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program. The planetary defense program finds and tracks rogue asteroids that could slam into Earth, giving us some leeway time so we don’t end up like the dinosaurs.
Arecibo plans to replace the existing cables starting next month, but it has yet to work out how to pay for the effort. According to the Associated Press, the observatory estimates the damage at more than $12 million and is requesting funding from the National Science Foundation to fix it.
Arecibo has struggled to secure funding in the past, but this time, it’s critical that something gets done fast. Only a few cables are supporting the massive receiving platform. While engineers wait for help to arrive, they’re using drones and remote cameras to assess the situation and determine the cause of the failure.
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