Close the large Puerto Rico radio telescope

Remigio Civitarese
Novembre 21, 2020

After determining that the structure was unstable, officials evacuated the facility and are working on a plan to safely dismantled the massive telescope.

As soon as such a warning was received by the safety experts, the authorities made a decision to demolish the structure shortly.

"This decision comes after the NSF evaluated a number of independent engineering companies that found the telescope system at risk of a catastrophic failure, and its cables would no longer be capable of carrying loads created to support them", the NSF said in a statement.

Since the Arecibo Observatory's completion in 1963, it has been used for scientific research in radio astronomy and atmospheric science. This was one of the four primary cables, each of which should have been capable of holding 544 tonnes - but "snapped under only" 283 tonnes, according to a report then by the Associated Press.

The dish itself is responsible for a number of fascinating discoveries throughout its 57-year operational history, including the first radar image of an asteroid and the first discovery of exoplanets, though it's especially recognisable for its famous cameo in the final act of 1995's GoldenEye.

Wreckage is seen in a wide gash in the dish of the Arecibo telescope littered with foliage and overgrowth
The support cables fell and ripped large gashes in the telescope's reflector dish

The engineering company that examined the structure concluded that the remaining cables were possibly weaker than expected and recommended controlled demolition, which the foundation accepted.

SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to Drake, former observatory director Mike Nolan, and astronomer Edgard Rivera-Valentín about the damage, as well as the telescope's irreplaceable role in detecting Earth-threatening asteroids, and its huge importance as a symbol for Puerto Ricans. "A controlled decommissioning gives us the opportunity to preserve valuable assets that the observatory has". "At a time when public interest and scientific curiosity about space and the skies has re-intensified, there remains much to understand about the data that has been acquired by Arecibo". While the observatory will soon cease to exist, its interplanetary message will live on - as will the memories of its use in astronomers' archives. That would bring the 900-ton instrument platform, suspended 137 meters above the 305-meter wide dish, crashing down.

"Over its lifetime, Arecibo Observatory has helped transform our understanding of the ionosphere, showing us how density, composition and other factors interact to shape this critical region where Earth's atmosphere meets space", said Michael Wiltberger, head of NSF's Geospace Section.

One of the most recognisable radio telescopes on Earth is being decommissioned after a series of incidents left it damaged beyond fix. The Arecibo Observatory Amateur Radio Club, KP4AO, is headquartered at the research facility, and several radio amateurs are employed there.

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