RIP Arecibo telescope — you’ll be missed

OK, 2020 — just stop it already.

As might seem appropriate, at the start of 2020, astronomers using Arecibo found an asteroid resembling the head of a person wearing a face mask. The mighty telescope, a victim of multiple disasters, would finally be pushed to the edge and beyond. Before the year was over, the telescope would be dead.

In July 2016, the Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in China came online, and Arecibo lost its title of the largest single-aperture telescope in the world.

Hurricane Maria struck the dish in September 2017, destroying 30 of the facility’s 38,000 aluminum panels. Although relatively minor, this was the first in a series of unfortunate events for Arecibo.

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Damage from the first of two cable failures that led to the destruction of the Arecibo telescope. Image credit: UCF

Hurricanes damaged the telescope throughout 2020, and a pair of cable breaks doomed the facility. The first of these, in August 2020, resulted when a cable slipped from its socket, creating a 30 meter (100-foot) gash in the mammoth dish, as well as damage to the platform leading to the dome. The facility was shut down while damage was assessed.

On November 7, a second cable broke just prior to repairs being conducted to the historic telescope. This second cable snapped unexpectedly, destroying a part of the dome itself.

“The second broken cable was unexpected. Engineering assessments following the auxiliary cable failure indicated that the structure was stable… Engineers subsequently found the 3-inch main cable snapped at about 60 percent of what should have been its minimum breaking strength during a period of calm weather, raising the possibility of other cables being weaker than expected. Subsequent inspections via drones of the other cables revealed new wire breaks on some main cables,” the NSF reports.

These events caused the collapse of large portions of the dish. Repairs were hampered by the pandemic raging around the world. Three engineering firms were hired to assess the damage, along with the possibility of resuming operations at the facility.

“Following engineering assessments concluding damage to Arecibo Observatory cannot be addressed without endangering the lives and safety of crew and staff, NSF plans to decommission the 305-meter telescope,” the National Science Foundation tweeted.

The U.S. Army of Engineers determined that the remaining cables were in danger of snapping, resulting in the collapse of the telescope, endangering nearby structures, and are beyond repair.

The loss of any of these ties could result in the collapse of large portions of the dish, potentially killing or injuring anyone standing nearby. The collapse of the Arecibo telescope is now inevitable.

Interviewing Dr. Anne Virkki, head of planetary radar studies for Arecibo Observatory, who discovered the “asteroid with a face mask” in the spring of 2020. Video credit: The Cosmic Companion.

On November 19, the National Science Foundation, which oversees the observatory, announced the evacuation, and demolition, of what remains of the iconic telescope.

“The decommissioning process involves developing a technical execution plan and ensuring compliance with a series of legal, environmental, safety and cultural requirements over the coming weeks… When all necessary preparations have been made, the telescope would be subject to a controlled disassembly,” the NSF reports.

The NSF hopes to reopen parts of the site, including the LIDAR facility, the Culebra research substation analyzing cloud cover, and the visitor center.

The Arecibo Telescope has had a long and fruitful life, bringing science forward with every year of its nearly six decades of serving the people of Earth.

In addition to Contact, the Arecibo telescope is remembered in pop culture as a setting for the X-Files, and the classic James Bond film, GoldenEye.

Its time to say goodbye to our beloved Arecibo, but this groundbreaking instrument will be forever remembered in our hearts and our minds, as well as in the crude pixelated image of the telescope, traveling forever through the stars.

This article was originally published on The Cosmic Companion by James Maynard, founder and publisher of The Cosmic Companion. He is a New England native turned desert rat in Tucson, where he lives with his lovely wife, Nicole, and Max the Cat. You can read this original piece here.

Astronomy News with The Cosmic Companion is also available as a weekly podcast, carried on all major podcast providers. Tune in every Tuesday for updates on the latest astronomy news, and interviews with astronomers and other researchers working to uncover the nature of the Universe.

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