Huge Puerto Rico radio telescope to close in blow to science


"The telescope is in no way obsolete", Christopher Salter, an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia, who worked at Arecibo for years, told Nature.

Now managed by the University of Central Florida (UCF), the Arecibo dish is located in a natural hollow. That would bring the 900-ton instrument platform, suspended 137 meters above the 305-meter wide dish, crashing down.

In August a sub-cable broke, tearing a 30-meter hole in the reflective dish and damaging the dome above it. Thus, the NSF deemed the structure unsafe to salvage and fix. The Observatory suffered serious injuries Damage due to a cable failure in August, And the situation only got worse. In the last few weeks, one of the main Steel cables of the telescope snapped, and this caused a lot of damage to the structure. The stresses to which it had been subjected should have been well within its design parameters. There was also evidence of significant slippage at several sockets holding the remaining auxiliary cables, which were added during a refit in the 1990s that added weight to the instrument platform. As for the main cables, which were part of the telescope's original structure, new wire breaks were found on some of them.

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As soon as such a warning was received by the safety experts, the authorities chose to demolish the structure shortly. "Engineers can not tell us the safety margin of the structure, but they have advised NSF that the structure will collapse in the near future on its own". "It is therefore our recommendation to expeditiously plan for decommissioning of the observatory and execute a controlled demolition of the telescope". "There's an incredibly diverse and unbelievable group of scientists and dedicated staff and engineers at the observatory, and I mean, I think it is their passion to continue to explore, to learn, and that is the true heart and soul of Arecibo", she said. The company also endorsed the findings and recommendations of Thornton Tomasetti.

A NSF spokesperson said engineers have yet to determine the cause of the initial cable failure. "While I am disappointed by the loss of investigative capabilities, I believe this process is a necessary step to preserve the research community's ability to use Arecibo Observatory's other assets and hopefully ensure that important work can continue at the facility".

Beyond the scientific community, the telescope has even besotted Hollywood, making appearances in the 1997 film "Contact", starring Jodie Foster, and the 1995 James Bond film "GoldenEye". The observatory was home to just one of many famous Sean Bean deaths, as he also came to his end in Middle-earth, Maryland, and Ireland.