Huge Puerto Rico Radio Telescope to Close in Blow to Science

The National Science Foundation announced Thursday that it would close the huge telescope at the renowned Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico in a blow to scientists worldwide who depend on it to search for planets, asteroids and extraterrestrial life. The independent, federally funded agency said it was too dangerous to keep operating the single-dish radio telescope — one of the world’s largest — given the significant damage it recently sustained. An auxiliary cable broke in August, tearing a 100-foot hole in the reflector dish and damaging the dome above it. Then on November 6, one of the telescope’s main steel cables snapped, leading officials to warn that the entire structure could collapse. NSF officials noted that even if crews were to repair all the damage, engineers found the structure would still be unstable in the long term. The main entrance of the Arecibo Observatory is seen in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Nov. 19, 2020.”This decision is not an easy one for NSF to make, but the safety of people is our No. 1 priority,” said Sean Jones, the agency’s assistant director for the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate. “We understand how much Arecibo means to this community and to Puerto Rico.” He said the goal was to preserve the telescope without placing people at risk, but “we have found no path forward to allow us to do so safely.” The telescope was built in the 1960s with money from the Defense Department amid a push to develop anti-ballistic missile defenses. In its 57 years of operation, it endured hurricanes, endless humidity and a recent string of strong earthquakes. The telescope boasts a 305-meter-wide (1,000-foot-wide) dish featured in the Jodie Foster film “Contact” and the James Bond movie “GoldenEye.” Scientists worldwide have used the dish, along with the 900-ton platform hanging 450 feet above it, to track asteroids on a path to Earth, conduct research that led to a Nobel Prize and determine if a planet is potentially habitable. In recent years, the NSF-owned facility has been managed by the University of Central Florida.  Reaction to newsAlex Wolszczan, a Polish-born astronomer and professor at Pennsylvania State University who helped discover the first extrasolar and pulsar planets, told The Associated Press that while the news wasn’t surprising, it was disappointing. He worked at the telescope in the 1980s and early 1990s.  “I was hoping against hope that they would come up with some kind of solution to keep it open,” he said. “For a person who has had a lot of his scientific life associated with that telescope, this is a rather interesting and sadly emotional moment.” One of three concrete support towers for the Arecibo Observatory radio telescope is seen in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Nov. 19, 2020.The announcement saddened many beyond the scientific world as well, with the hashtag #WhatAreciboMeansToMe popping up on Twitter along with pictures of people working, visiting and even getting married or celebrating a birthday at the telescope. Slow farewellRalph Gaume, director of NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences, stressed that the decision has nothing to do with the observatory’s capabilities, which have allowed scientists to study pulsars, to detect gravitational waves, as well as search for neutral hydrogen, which can reveal how certain cosmic structures are formed. “The telescope is currently at serious risk of unexpected, uncontrolled collapse,” he said. “Even attempts at stabilization or testing the cables could result in accelerating the catastrophic failure.” The NSF said it intends to restore operations at the observatory’s remaining assets, including its two LIDAR facilities, one of which is on the nearby island of Culebra. Those are used for upper atmospheric and ionospheric research, including analyzing cloud cover and precipitation data. Officials also aim to resume operations at the visitor center. Wolszczan said the value of the telescope won’t instantly disappear because he and many other scientists are still working on projects based on observations and data taken from the observatory. “The process of saying goodbye to Arecibo will certainly take some years,” he said. “It won’t be instantaneous.” 


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