WORLD NEWS – CALIFORNIA – The legendary Arecibo Telescope will shut down forever – Scientists reel


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The National Science Foundation says damage to the telescope from the November 6 cable cut is too big to be repaired.. Credit: University of Central Florida / Arecibo Observatory

One of the most famous telescopes in astronomy – the 305-meter-wide radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico – is closed permanently. Engineers can’t find a safe way to fix it after two cables supporting the structure suddenly and disastrously shattered, one in August and one in early November..

It’s the end of one of the most famous and scientifically produced telescopes in the history of astronomy – and scientists mourn its loss.

“I don’t know what to say,” said Robert Kerr, former director of the observatory. “It’s unbelievable.

« I’m totally devastated, » says Abel Mendes, an astrobiologist at the University of Puerto Rico in Arecibo who uses the observatory..

The Arecibo Telescope, built in 1963, has been the world’s largest radio telescope for decades and has both historical and modern significance in astronomy. The location from which astronomers sent an interstellar radio message in 1974, in case they heard any aliens, and where the first known planet outside the solar system was discovered, in 1992. It has also done pioneering work in discovering near-Earth asteroids, observing the baffling celestial explosions known as rapid radio explosions, and studying many other phenomena.. . All of these lines of investigation are now closed for good, although limited science continues at some of the smaller Arecibo facilities.

Broken cables helped support a 900-ton platform of scientific instruments hanging above the main telescope dish.. The first cable broke with plates on the edge of the plate, but the second cable tore huge cracks in its central part. A high-resolution satellite image, produced at the request of Nature by Planet, the Earthwatch company, showing the extent of the damage caused by the second cable; The green color of the plant is visible below through the large holes in the plate. A second photo, released this week by observatory officials, also revealed the devastation. It’s the only public glimpses of the damage so far.

A high-resolution satellite image of the Arecibo dish shows cracks in the main dish through which the green plants peep out below. Credit: Planet Labs, Inc.

If more cables fail – which can happen at any time – the entire platform could malfunction in the dish below. The US National Science Foundation (NSF), which owns the Arecibo observatory, is working on plans to safely downgrade the platform in a controlled manner..

A high-resolution satellite image of the Arecibo dish shows cracks in the main dish through which the green plants peek out below. Credit: Planet Labs, Inc.

But these plans will take weeks to develop, and there is no indication whether the platform may be disrupted uncontrollably in the meantime.. « Even attempts to stabilize or test cables can accelerate catastrophic failure, » NSF Chief Astronomy Officer Ralph Jaum said in a media briefing on November 19..

So NSF decided to permanently close Arecibo. « This decision is not an easy decision, but safety is the number one priority, » said Shawn Jones, Head of NSF’s Directorate of Mathematical and Physical Sciences.. .

The lockdown will likely come as a shock to the wider astronomical community. « The loss of the Arecibo Observatory would be a great loss for science, planetary defense and Puerto Rico, » Desiree Coto Figueroa, an astronomer at the University of Puerto Rico in Humacao, said in an email before the announced shutdown.. .

NSF officials insist the cable failure came as a surprise. After the first, engineering teams spotted a bunch of broken wires in the second cable, which was more important in suspending the chassis, but they didn’t see it as a big problem because the weight it was carrying was within its design capacity.. . « It was not seen as a direct threat, » says Ashley Zoderer, Director of the Arecibo Program at NSF..

The main cable that fails to make a wire break (Explained) before its sudden and unexpected breakdown. Credit: University of Central Florida / Arecibo Observatory

Over the years, external review committees have highlighted the continuing need to preserve the telescope’s old cables. Zoderer said maintenance was completed according to schedule.

Before this year, the observatory’s last major cable problem was in January 2014, when it reached a magnitude of 6. Earthquake No. 4 also damaged another main cable, which engineers repaired. The ancient structure has suffered other shocks in recent years, including Hurricane Maria in 2017 and a series of smaller earthquakes in January this year..

Gaume said that some of the observatory’s science projects may be able to move to other facilities – and that he expects scientists to suggest a place to turn their research into. The flag continues in other parts of the Arecibo Observatory, which includes more than one dish 305 meters high. It includes two lidar facilities that fire lasers into the atmosphere to study atmospheric phenomena.

Arecibo has been regularly upgraded, with several new tools set to be installed in the coming years. « The telescope is by no means very old, » says Christopher Salter, an astronomer at the National Observatory of Radio Astronomy in Greenbank, West Virginia, and who has worked at Arecibo for years..

The observatory is also a major scientific educational center in Puerto Rico, promoting the careers of many astronomers and engineers.. It has become part of the pop culture lexicon, and appears in major films such as Contact, based on the Carl Sagan novel, and James Bond GoldenEye..

The last major radio telescope disaster occurred in 1988, when a 300-foot-wide antenna at the observatory in Greenbank, West Virginia, collapsed one night due to a structural failure.

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Top header image: Credit: Adam Harvey / Megapixels. Cc based on the MegaFace dataset by Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman et al.. Based on 100 million Yahoo Flickr Creative Commons dataset and licensed under Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licenses


ISSN 1476-4687 (Online)

Arecibo Observatory, Radio Telescope, National Science Foundation, Observatory, Telescope, Puerto Rico

World News – California – The legendary Arecibo Telescope will shut down forever – Scientists reel


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