The end is near for famed Arecibo Observatory’s damaged telescope


The spherical radio/radar telescope features a radio dish 1,000 ft throughout and a 900-ton instrument platform suspended 450 ft above it. Cables related to a few towers maintain the telescope in place.

An auxiliary cable got here unfastened from a socket on one of many towers in August, making a 100-foot gash within the dish. Engineers have been assessing and dealing on a plan to restore the injury when one other important cable on the tower broke on November 6.

When it broke, the cable crashed into the reflector dish beneath, inflicting extra injury.

After the break on November 6, engineers inspected the remainder of the cables and found new breaks in addition to slippage from a number of the sockets on the towers. Multiple engineering firms reviewed the injury. They decided that the telescope may collapse as a result of it is “in danger of catastrophic failure” and the cables are weaker than anticipated.

This image shows an overview of the damage to Arecibo Observatory's 305-meter telescope in November.

Even if engineers may safely repair all of the injury and add cables to assist the telescope, it will seemingly have stability points sooner or later.

The newest evaluate revealed that injury to the telescope couldn’t be stabilized with out risking workers and the development group. This led to the NSF making the choice to decommission the telescope after 57 years.

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“NSF prioritizes the safety of workers, Arecibo Observatory’s staff and visitors, which makes this decision necessary, although unfortunate,” stated NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan in a press release.

“For nearly six decades, the Arecibo Observatory has served as a beacon for breakthrough science and what a partnership with a community can look like. While this is a profound change, we will be looking for ways to assist the scientific community and maintain that strong relationship with the people of Puerto Rico.”

While no direct trigger for the breaks has been recognized, corrosion is suspected as the principle concern. The observatory has withstood hurricanes, earthquakes and tropical storms through the years.

The observatory, which was featured within the James Bond movie “GoldenEye,” was accomplished in 1963 and has been helmed by the NSF since 1970. It is operated and managed by a group on the University of Central Florida, the Universidad Ana G. Méndez and Yang Enterprises Inc.

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The telescope has supported and contributed to essential discoveries in radio astronomy in addition to planetary and photo voltaic system analysis, together with gravitational waves.

The Arecibo telescope performed a key function in discovering the primary planet outdoors our photo voltaic system and has helped astronomers determine probably hazardous asteroids en path to Earth.

“Until these assessments came in, our question was not if the observatory should be repaired but how. 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,” stated Ralph Gaume, director of NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences, in a press release.

A legacy of discoveries

Over the years, Arecibo Observatory has revealed new particulars about our planet’s ionosphere, the photo voltaic system and worlds past it.

Observations made by the telescope helped uncover the primary binary pulsar in 1974 (which led to the 1993 Nobel Prize in physics), supported NASA’s Viking mission, produced the primary radar maps of Venus’ floor and noticed the primary exoplanet in 1992.

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More not too long ago, Arecibo detected natural molecules in a distant galaxy and found the primary repeating quick radio burst.

“Over its lifetime, Arecibo Observatory has helped transform our understanding of the ionosphere, showing us how density, composition and other factors interact to shape this critical region where Earth’s atmosphere meets space,” stated Michael Wiltberger, head of NSF’s Geospace Section, in a press release.

Fortunately, archival knowledge from the telescope will probably be migrated to servers outdoors of the hazard zone, persevering with the custom of analysis and discovery by the telescope for years to come back.

End of an period

While the telescope will probably be decommissioned, the NSF plans to protect as a lot of the observatory as it may possibly. This will permit the observatory to function a hub for analysis and training sooner or later.

The course of to decommission a telescope is a sophisticated one. The NSF plan should meet authorized, security, cultural and environmental necessities. Drones will present picture surveys that assist with the planning. Further evaluations of the damaged cable will probably be carried out, provided that they are often carried out safely, to see if they’ll glean extra proof that might form their plans.

But any “stress tests” of the cables are being prevented as a result of they might collapse the telescope.

Any a part of the observatory vulnerable to a collapse has been evacuated and can keep closed. The operators of the observatory are hoping to maneuver rapidly however totally by way of their plans to keep away from a collapse.

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Once the plans are in place, the telescope will probably be disassembled by way of a managed demolition.

“We believe the structure will collapse in the near future if left untouched,” in accordance with a letter by engineering agency Thornton Tomasetti. “Controlled demolition, designed with a specific collapse sequence determined and implemented with the use of explosives, will reduce the uncertainty and danger associated with collapse.”

The agency additionally beneficial that this be carried out “as soon as pragmatically possible.”

After this enterprise is full, the NSF plans to give attention to restoring operations on the observatory.

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Of curiosity is the LIDAR geospace analysis facility, the customer middle and the offsite Culebra facility for analyzing precipitation and cloud cowl knowledge. The NSF is additionally contemplating increasing the educational middle, though the continuing pandemic will influence that for the time being.

“NSF recognizes the cultural and economic significance of Arecibo Observatory to Puerto Rico, and how the telescope serves as an inspiration for Puerto Ricans considering education and employment in STEM,” in accordance with a release from the company.



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