This is the latest blow to one of the most powerful telescopes on Earth, which has supported astronomical discoveries for 57 years and withstood hurricanes, earthquakes and tropical storms.
The collapse came just weeks after the NSF announced that the telescope would be decommissioned and dismantled through controlled demolition after suffering irreparable damage earlier this year.
“The instrument platform of the 305-meter telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico fell during the night. No injuries were reported. NSF is working with stakeholders to assess the situation. Our main priority is to maintain safety. NSF will publish more details when confirmed , “according to a tweet from the National Science Foundation.
“NSF is saddened by this development. As we move forward, we will look for ways to support the scientific community and maintain strong relationships with the people of Puerto Rico,”
The spherical radio / radar telescope includes a 1,000-foot radio and a 900-ton instrument platform suspended 450 feet above it. The cables connected to the three towers hold the telescope in place.
In August, an auxiliary cable loosened from the socket on one of the towers, creating a 100-foot slot in the vessel. Engineers were assessing and working on a repair plan when another main cable in the tower broke on November 6.
When broken, the cable slammed into the reflector plate below, causing additional damage.
After the November 6 outage, engineers inspected the remaining cables and found new outages, as well as slippage from some of the tower’s sockets. Numerous engineering companies have reviewed the damage. They determined that the telescope could collapse because it was “in danger of catastrophic damage” and the cables were weaker than expected.
The latest inspection revealed that the damage to the telescope could not be stabilized without the risk of personnel and the construction team. This led NSF to decide to decommission the telescope after 57 years.
“We believe the structure will collapse in the near future if left untouched,” said a letter from engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti, which assessed the observatory before announcing decommissioning on November 19th. executed using explosives will reduce the uncertainty and danger associated with collapse. “
The company also recommends that this be done “as soon as possible”.
These plans were underway when the telescope collapsed.
NSF plans to keep as much of the observatory as possible to allow the observatory to serve as a center for future research and education, as well as to restore operations at the observatory. There is still no word on how this collapse affected these plans or whether they managed to migrate all the archival data collected by the telescope to offsite servers.
Of interest are the LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) geospatial facility, the visitor center and the Culebra facility for precipitation and cloud cover analysis.
Legacy of discoveries
Over the years, the Arecibo Observatory has revealed new details about the ionosphere of our planet, the solar system and worlds outside it.
The telescope has supported and contributed to important discoveries in radio astronomy, as well as to studies of the planet and the solar system, including gravitational waves.
The Arecibo telescope played a key role in the discovery of the first planet outside our solar system and helped astronomers identify potentially dangerous asteroids on their way to Earth.
Observations from the telescope helped discover the first binary pulsar in 1974 (which led to the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1993), supported NASA’s Viking mission, created the first radar maps of the surface of Venus, and spotted the first exoplanet. in 1992
More recently, Arecibo discovered organic molecules in a distant galaxy and discovered the first recurring rapid radio burst.
The observatory, which was included in the James Bond film The Golden Eye, was completed in 1963 and has been run by the NSF since 1970. It is run and managed by a team from the University of Central Florida, Anna G. Mendes University and Yang Enterprises Inc.
“Arecibo has been an incredibly productive facility for almost 60 years,” said Jonathan Lunin, a science professor at David C. Duncan and chair of the Department of Astronomy at Cornell University, in a statement after the announcement of the operation.
The telescope was designed and constructed by Cornell.
“For the scientists and engineers from Cornell who took the bold dream and made it come true, for the scientists who made new discoveries with this uniquely powerful radio telescope and planetary radar, and for all the young people who were inspired to become scientists at the sight of this huge telescope in the middle of the island of Puerto Rico, the end of Arecibo is a priceless loss. ”
Scientists are worried about projects that have been underway with the Arecibo telescope, as well as what this means for future discoveries – especially of asteroids approaching Earth.
“The planetary radar capability in Arecibo, funded by NASA’s Near-Earth Observation Program (NEO), has served as one of the two main capabilities of planetary radar. It allowed NASA to fully characterize the exact orbits, dimensions, and shapes of some NEOs in the range of the radar after they were discovered by projects to observe wide-field optical telescopes. “
But a fully operational Goldstone Observatory in California will also be able to characterize these sites, “so NASA’s NEO search efforts are not affected by the planned decommissioning of Arecibo’s 305-meter radio telescope.”