The collapse of the iconic radio telescope in Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico last month left astronomers with many questions about what went wrong and what came next.
During a virtual event at City Hall held at the 237th conference of the American Astronomical Society on Monday (January 11th), officials at the National Science Foundation (NSF), which owns the facility, offered the most detailed retelling to date. which led to the uncontrolled collapse of the telescope on December 1.
The event was the agency’s first presentation aimed at researchers since the facility collapsed, and officials stressed their connection to scientists from all over the world who had connections with Arecibo. “We at NSF are extremely grateful that the safety zones were adequate and that no one was physically injured,”
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“I say ‘physically injured’ because we want to communicate clearly that we understand that this was a very traumatic event that affected many people,” Sauderer said. “There are a lot of injuries.”
Sauderer’s comments focused on giving astronomers a detailed sense of the events surrounding the collapse, with a timeline beginning in 2017 when hurricanes Irma and Maria battered Puerto Rico. The facility was preparing to begin repair work on the resulting damage when the cable was damaged in August. (Hurricane repairs included replacing another cable connected to another support tower with cables that eventually failed to deploy the collapse scenario.)
But then, before dawn on August 10, one of the massive cables holding the 900-ton science platform slipped out of its socket. Engineers assessed the situation, decided that the structure still needed to be stable, and began drafting a repair strategy. Meanwhile, an investigation into what went wrong has begun, Sauderer said.
“This failed nest was removed and sent to NASA’s Kennedy Laboratory for Forensics in early October to try to understand why it failed and then help us understand if other nests are also potentially at risk,” he said. she.
A repair plan was reassembled and the facility prepared to begin work to strike again when another cable attached to the same tower broke on 6 November. After the second failure, NSF concluded that there was no safe way to stabilize or save the facility and began evaluating ways to decommission the telescope in a controlled manner, a decision that was announced on Nov. 19, although Sauderer told assembled astronomers that the NSF still had hope.
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“Although we said we were planning to decommission at this time, we are still looking to get more information, so if new information comes out that there is a safe way to repair the telescope, we were ready to replace it,” she said. . .
This change was never possible; the platform collapsed 1,000 feet (305 meters) wide below it on December 1, destroying the radio telescope.
“It’s not what neither of us wanted,” Sauderer said. “NSF has been working very hard since August to allow for a stabilization plan.”
The future of the site is still unknown Congress joined the astronomers and Puerto Ricans in a request for an update on the facility – what happened, what NSF wants to do with the observatory and related cost estimates – by the end of February The request comes as part of an omnibus account that finances the agency during this fiscal year ending September 30; Ralph Gaum, director of the NSF’s Department of Astronomical Sciences, referred to the congressional request at the town hall, but did not provide details on how the NSF would implement it.
Sauderer told Space.com that teams have begun evaluating how to safely clean the site on the day of the collapse. “The work is very active, but it will take a long time due to the amount of debris and the need to continue safely and with appropriate measures to protect the environment,” she wrote.
But during the presentation, Sauderer noted that the collapse did not completely destroy the radio telescope’s iconic dish. “About 50% of the reflector is still intact,” she said. “At this point, we are considering assessing the pros and cons of retaining part, restoring, or what can be done about it.”
Email Megan Bartels at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.