No one expected the November 6 click as engineers in Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico assessed their ability to deal with damage to the facility from cable damage in the summer.
But just as the engineers were ready to begin repairing that slipped secondary cable in August, they faced a much more serious challenge: one of the main cables clicked unexpectedlyendangering the entire facility.
“We’ve seen some individual wire breaks on this particular cable, but we haven’t seen any change in weeks,” Francisco Cordova, director of the observatory, told Space.com.
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“This particular situation was assessed by the engineering team and it was decided not to be a problem, as the capacity of this cable was so much higher than the load it took, that it really should not be a problem,” Cordova said. “Surely now with this failure we understand that this capacity simply does not exist and that there has been another deterioration.”
Nestled in a natural pool in the middle of the Puerto Rican jungle, the Arecibo Observatory began scientific work in 1963 and is the world’s second largest radio antenna. Scientists have used it to confirm that pulsars are superdense neutron stars, to discover the first planets beyond our solar system, and to broadcast a message out into space in the hope of reaching intelligent extraterrestrial life. It is also the main guard on Earth for identifying whether specific asteroids are about to hit the planet – and he has appeared in James Bond’s “GoldenEye” and “Contact” movies, no less.
Arecibo was designed by a Cornell University scientist who operated the facility until 2011, and the National Science Foundation (NSF) is the main sponsor of the observatory. Faced with growing budgetary pressures, the NSF gradually cut funding, transferring operations first to the University Space Research Association and then to University of Central Florida, although NSF still owns the site.
But the last few years have been difficult for the observatory. In 2014, a strong earthquake damaged parts of the facility, including a cable that the facility’s managers hoped to replace later this year. In 2017 Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico, but mostly spared Arecibo. The helipad of the observatory and the well are vital resources for those living near the facility. Astronomers outside had to wait more than a week to learn that the observatory was still standing.
This year, throughout January, a a series of earthquakes, the strongest 6.4 temble, shook Puerto Rico and the facility was closed for inspection. When the month ended and the earthquakes with it, Puerto Ricans celebrated the new year again, hoping the worst of the year was over, said Abel Mendes, a planetary astrobiologist at the University of Puerto Rico who regularly takes students to observe Arecibo, Space.com – only to confront the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in March.
But for the observatory, things would only get worse.
The first cable came out of the socket on August 10 at 2:45 local time. On the way down, he damaged surveillance equipment hanging above the plate and carved a 30-foot (30-meter) backpack into the fragile plate, according to statement from the University of Central Floridawho operates the facility.
The situation became much worse on November 6 at 7:39 p.m., when a second cable – this time one of the primary cables – snapped, breaking the structural integrity of a 900-ton (800,000-kilogram) platform that hung over a plate holding the antennas of the facility and the scientific instruments.
“The weather is crucial right now,” Mendes told Space.com. “I’m totally scared of what’s happening at the observatory right now. I’m so worried about it.”
Assessing the situation is also difficult, as reaching the suspended platform and the towers that secure its support cables is dangerous. “When you have access to the towers, when you have access to the platform, there are a million ways to remove a failed cable, to lift a new cable, things like that,” Cordova said. “When you can’t access the attachment points for these cables, it becomes a big challenge.”
On the ground, Cordoba said, the damage did not look as bad as it actually was.
“You don’t see much difference when you look at the platform – you certainly see a few extra cables hanging down, but they shouldn’t, they really have to point up and point down,” Cordova said. “But it’s such a massive structure that even this is lost in the background size of the telescope platform itself. “
The same goes for damage the dish has accumulated during the incidents, he said. “Certainly the dish is quite damaged,” Cordoba said.[but] every time you look at how big our primary reflector is and look at what the damage is, it also doesn’t seem like something insurmountable. “
The observatory has gathered a range of opportunities to stabilize the situation and is awaiting a decision from the National Science Foundation, which owns the facility, on how to proceed. “We hope to make that decision in the next few days,” Cordoba said.
Meanwhile, scientists at the Arecibo Observatory are hoping for the best. Researchers also gather for regular virtual meetings, which Mendes described as stress relief sessions, to talk about the situation and share memories of the facility.
“It’s obviously an extremely worrying situation,” Don Campbell, who began his career at Arecibo in 1965 and eventually served as director of the observatory in 1980, told Space.com. “The first damage to the cable was certainly a surprise and a cause for serious concern … With the second damage to the cable, things obviously became much more serious.”
At risk is not only the half-century history of the observatory of research covering astronomy, atmospheric research, asteroids near the Earth and the search for life beyond Earth. More troubling, scientists say, is the possibility of losing a unique facility with a lot of work.
“Arecibo is still a very telescope that is at the forefront of many areas and its loss will be huge,” Campbell said. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed for them to figure out how to stabilize the structure and repair it. I still have some hope.”
“It’s an uncertain situation,” he added, “and we just have to wait and see.”
Email Megan Bartels at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.