Radio telescope Arecibo had a support cable snap, damaging the reflector dish. Find out what happened and how they plan to get the observatory back online.
We had all kinds of iconic images growing up in the Space Age. One of them was the parabolic dish antenna. We saw them on television all the time, often at tracking stations following the latest space missions.
Later, when satellite television first appeared, some families installed similar dishes about sixteen feet in diameter in their backyards. The parabolic antenna became part of the landscape and a symbol of progress.
Parabolic Antenna Became Part of the Landscape
Starting back in 1932, scientists realized that these massive dish antennas could receive radio signals from outer space. Even though they had no lenses and no mirrors, they soon took on the name radio telescopes.
I remember flipping through a science textbook in public school, looking at the pictures as Paul Simon describes, and turning the pages. One image startled and fascinated me.
The Dish Antenna to End All Dish Antennas
It was the dish antenna to end all dish antennas. Built into a massive sinkhole, the reflector was the size of some of the country estates in our rural area. It was called the Arecibo Observatory.
It’s not surprising that I saw this image growing up. The giant radio telescope and I are almost exactly the same age. We were both born in the fall of 1960.
Arecibo is in Puerto Rico. It belongs to the National Science Foundation under the direction of Ana C. Mendez University there as well as the University of Central Florida.
By Far the Largest Radio Telescope in the World
For most of my life, it’s been by far the largest radio telescope in the world. It was only surpassed four years ago by Tianyan, the nickname for the Five Hundred Metre Aperture Spherical Telescope in China.
Scientists have made countless discoveries using Arecibo, from the rotation period of Mercury to neutron stars, to imaging an asteroid for the first time. It helped win a Nobel Prize for discovering the first binary pulsar.
For the last six decades, Arecibo has been an indispensable tool in our search for answers about our place in the Universe. It has even transmitted radio messages into space as part of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
This week we heard some disturbing news about Arecibo. A three-inch metal support cable connected to the overhead platform snapped.
Support Cable Connected to the Platform Snapped
As the cable fell, its impact caused a thirty-metre gash in the reflector dish and other damage. The observatory has shut down for repairs.
Lucky, this all happened at around 2:30 am. The facility was closed (radio telescopes don’t have to run at night), and nobody was injured.
Francisco Cordova is the observatory’s director. He explained, ““We have a team of experts assessing the situation. Our focus is assuring the safety of our staff, protecting the facilities and equipment, and restoring the facility to full operations as soon as possible, so it can continue to assist scientists around the world.”
Disruption is a Blow to Global Researchers
The disruption is a blow to global researchers who rely on the Arecibo Observatory. The radio telescope supports research in gravitational waves, examining asteroids, exploring planets and many other aspects of astrophysics.
The impact of the accident varies by project. In some cases, the object that astronomers want to examine is always in the same spot. A star or a black hole isn’t going anywhere. The goals for these projects will still be in the sky when the radio telescope comes back online.
In other cases, like asteroid classification, the goal is a moving target. Postponing the project means that whatever phenomenon you planned to study may be over and gone when Arecibo comes back online. Everything has to be rethought.
Arecibo Has Been Through a Lot Over the Years
Like all of us who’ve been around this long, Arecibo has been through a lot over the years. The island is directly in the path of tropical storms and hurricanes. Climate change makes them more intense every year. Puerto Rico is also prone to earthquakes.
The radio telescope survived the deadly 2017 Hurricane Maria, which flattened the island of Puerto Rico. All the structural damage to Arecibo has been repaired. However, staff are still working to recalibrate the dish and fully restore its reception quality. This new accident may force them to start all over again from scratch.
In January of this year, Puerto Rico endured a series of earthquakes. Some of the tremors reached 6.4 on the Richter scale.
Earthquakes Made the Radio Telescope Unusable
That seismic activity didn’t damage the observatory. Still, the vibration made the radio telescope unusable and forced staff to stay home for safety reasons.
Just as staff were settling back in after the tremors, the pandemic arrived, triggering social distancing. That disrupted observatory operations yet again, although the team can operate the radio telescope remotely. The curse of 2020 has been especially hard on Arecibo.
At this point, managers at the observatory don’t know what caused the cable to snap. They also haven’t announced when the radio telescope will be back online.
“It’s Not Like I Feel That It’s Doomed”
Abel Méndez heads up Arecibo’s Planetary Habitability Laboratory. He told the Atlantic’s Marina Koren, “It’s frustrating. I always see this as, ‘Okay, stop for a moment, but we will be back soon.’ It’s not like I feel that it’s doomed.”
With a bit of luck, the iconic facility will be able to source a new cable and the rest of the repair materials despite the pandemic. Then maybe, like all the rest of us, it can get back to normal (whatever that is!)
All my life, Arecibo has played a vital role in learning the new story that we all need to help us understand our place in the Universe. We’ll keep an eye on this story and keep our readers posted on any new developments.
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
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