Famed Telescope Can't Be Saved

Cables are failing at astronomy landmark in Puerto Rico
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 19, 2020 7:20 PM CST
Updated Nov 20, 2020 1:00 AM CST
Arecibo Radio Telescope Can't Be Saved
The largest single-dish radio telescopes at the Arecibo Observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, shown undamaged in 2016.   (AP Photo/Danica Coto, File)

The iconic radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory is being taken out of commission. Cables hold up a 900-ton equipment platform over the telescope's huge reflector dish, and those cables have begun to fail. One broke this month, after an auxiliary cable had slipped out of its socket in August, which led to a 100-foot gash in the dish. Inspections found problems with other cables, engineers produced assessments, and the National Science Foundation announced its decision Thursday, Space.com reports. "Our goal has been to find a way to preserve the telescope without placing anyone's safety at risk," an official said, adding, "we have found no path forward that would allow us to do so safely." The observatory, in northern Puerto Rico, has contributed to radio astronomy, astrophysics, atmospheric studies and solar system astronomy knowledge for 57 years, per NPR. The urgency now is to dismantle the structure safely before it collapses, putting people and other equipment at risk. That will be tricky.

"Even attempts of stabilization or testing the cables could result in accelerating the catastrophic failure," another official said. "Engineers cannot tell us the safety margin of the structure," though they said it won't last long. Arecibo was used to detect whirling pulsars in 1974, resulting in the 1993 Nobel Prize in physics for scientists who found the first evidence for gravitational waves. It's been involved in the search for life on other planets, including the beaming of a message about Earth into space in the 1970s. The program director for Arecibo said the telescope will be lost but not the work, saying the creativity comes from its people. "It's the idea of discovery that led to the construction to start with," Ashley Zauderer said. "It's the passion of the people that work at the observatory … to continue to explore, to learn, that is the true heart and soul of Arecibo." (More radio telescope stories.)

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