Giant aging cables that support one of the world’s largest single-dish radio telescopes are slowly unraveling in this part of the United States, pushing an observatory known for its key role in astronomical discoveries to the brink of collapse.
The Arecibo Observatory, which is tied over a hole in the lush mountainous region of Puerto Rico, boasts a 1,000-foot-wide width featured in Jodie Foster’s The Contact and the James Bond film The Golden Eye. The dish and the dome above it were used to track asteroids aimed at Earth, conducting research that led to the Nobel Prize and helping scientists try to determine if a planet is habitable.
“As a person who depends on Arecibo for my science, I am afraid. It is a very worrying situation at the moment. There is a possibility of a cascading, catastrophic failure, “said astronomer Scott Ransom of the North American Gravitational Observatory Nanohertz, a collaboration between scientists from the United States and Canada.
Last week, one of the telescope̵
Officials said they were surprised because they assessed the structure in August and believed it could handle the weight shift based on previous inspections.
This is a blow to the telescope, which has been used by more than 250 scientists around the world. The facility is also one of Puerto Rico’s main tourist attractions, attracting about 90,000 visitors a year. Research has been suspended since August, including a project to help scientists search for nearby galaxies.
The telescope was built in the 1960s and was funded by the Ministry of Defense amid efforts to develop a ballistic missile defense. It has suffered more than half a century of disasters, including hurricanes and earthquakes. Repairs to Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, were still underway when the first cable snapped.
Some new cables are expected to arrive next month, but officials said funding for the repairs has not been worked out with federal agencies. Scientists warn that time is running out. Now only a handful of cables support a 900-ton platform.
“Each of the other cables in the structure now supports a heavier weight than before, increasing the likelihood of new cable damage, which is likely to cause the entire structure to collapse,” said the University of Central Florida, which operated the facility on Friday.
University officials say crews have already noticed wire breaks on two of the other main cables. They warn that employees and contractors are at risk, although they rely heavily on unmanned aerial vehicles and remote cameras to assess damage.
The observatory estimates the damage at more than $ 12 million and is seeking money from the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency that owns the observatory.
Foundation spokeswoman Rob Margeta said engineering and cost estimates were not complete and that funding for the renovation was likely to include Congress and stakeholder discussions. He said the agency was reviewing “all recommendations for action in Arecibo.”
“NSF is ultimately responsible for design safety decisions,” he said in an email. “Our top priority is the safety of everyone on site.”
Representatives of the university and the observatory said telescope director Francisco Cordoba was not available for comment. In a Facebook post, the observatory said support was up to date and the latest external structural assessment came after Hurricane Maria.
The latest damage is likely the result of the cable breaking down over time and carrying extra weight after the auxiliary cable snapped, the university said. In August, the socket holding the cable failed, probably as a result of a manufacturing error, the observatory said.
The problems have interrupted researchers such as Edgard Rivera-Valentin, a scientist at the University Association for Space Research at the Lunar Planetary Institute in Texas. He planned to explore Mars in September as it approached Earth.
“This is the closest Mars to be observed by Arecibo until 2067,” he said. “I won’t be around the next time we can get that level of radar data.”
The Observatory in Puerto Rico is considered crucial for the study of pulsars, which are the remains of stars that can be used to detect gravitational waves, a phenomenon that Albert Einstein predicted in his theory of general relativity. The telescope is also used to search for neutral hydrogen, which can reveal how certain cosmic structures are formed.
“It’s more than 50 years old, but it remains a very important tool,” said Alex Wolszczan, a Polish-born astronomer and professor at Pennsylvania State University.
He helped discover the first extrasolar and pulsar planets and credited the observatory with a culture that allowed him to test what he described as wild ideas that sometimes worked.
“Losing it would be a huge blow to what I think is a very important science,” Wolszthan said.
An astronomer at the observatory in the 1980s and early 1990s, Wolszczan still used the telescope for a specific job because it offered an incomparable combination of high-frequency range and sensitivity that he said allowed a “huge array” of scientific projects. Among them: observation of life molecules, detection of radio emission of stars and operation of the pulsar.
The telescope was also a training ground for graduate students and much loved for its educational potential, said Carmen Pantoja, an astronomer and professor at the University of Puerto Rico, the island’s largest state university.
She relied on him in her doctoral dissertation and remembered watching him in a miracle when he was a young girl.
“I was amazed at how big and mysterious it was,” she said. “The future of the telescope depends to a large extent on the position of the National Science Foundation … I hope that they will find a way and that there is a good will to save it.”
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