Investigation begins into damage at one of the world’s most iconic observatories

Radio Telescope, Arecibo Observatory, Puerto RicoThe Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. | Photo: Universal Images Group via Getty Images

This week, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico — an iconic facility made famous by movies like Contact and Goldeneye — had to halt observations of the Universe after a structural cable failed, punching a hole in the facility’s giant reflector dish. Operators of the observatory say the overall facility is mostly fine, but they’re working to figure out exactly what went wrong.

“The majority of that primary reflector is in good shape, but our focus is really making sure that the platform has the structural stability needed to operate in the near future,” Francisco Cordova, the director of the observatory at the University of Central Florida, said during a press call.

 Image: UCF
Damage as seen from underneath the disk.

Early Monday morning, one of the cables that helps to keep a large metal platform in place over the observatory detached. The end of the cable slipped out of one of its sockets, causing the three-inch-wide cord to fall to the ground. The incident destroyed about 250 panels that comprise the main reflector dish, creating a 100-foot-long gap in the structure. The accident also slightly damaged panels on the large Gregorian dome above the observatory, a white golf ball-shaped structure that houses reflectors that help direct the facility’s observations of the sky.

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Photos of the damage make it seem particularly nasty, but Arecibo’s main reflector dish is comprised of 40,000 panels — making the overall destruction very small. Still, the observatory cannot operate at full capacity in the meantime. Normally, Arecibo is up and running 24/7, with observations typically taking place between 3PM and 7AM each day, according to Cordova. UCF sent a note out to all of Arecibo’s users, notifying them that observations have been put on hold for at least a two-week period. However, the team doesn’t know how long it will take to repair the damage — or how much it’s going to cost.

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 Image: UCF
Drone footage of the damage.

“These cables are very custom for this particular application,” Cordova said. “So they take, you know, a little bit of time to fabricate and ship and get them installed.” They hope to have more information by the end of next week, he says. The Arecibo Observatory is funded through the National Science Foundation.

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Right now, the operators at UCF are launching an investigation into the incident, as they still don’t know why the cable snapped. “This was certainly an unprecedented event,” Cordova said. “These cables are expected to last at least for another 15, 20 years at the minimum.” The cable that broke was installed more than 20 years ago, Cordova noted, when the Gregorian dome was added to the facility. Investigators are still trying to pin down the origin of the failure. “We’ve barely started on this endeavor,” Ray Lugo, director of UCF’s Florida Space Institute and the lead overseeing the investigation, said during the press conference. “Our focus right now is making sure that we protect our people, and the unique equipment and facilities we have here.”

Not only has Arecibo been featured in numerous films, but the observatory is also critical for numerous deep-space observations, used to search for exotic cosmic objects and events like pulsars, bursts of radio waves, and more. The dish is also instrumental for planetary defense, helping NASA look for potentially dangerous near-Earth asteroids that could pose a threat to our planet. Arecibo also receives particular attention for its involvement with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). As part of that project, it scans the sky for potential radio transmissions from intelligent beings.

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Arecibo has also weathered a lot of storms — both figuratively and literally — these last few years, and UCF is confident that this will only be a small delay. “We are a pretty resilient bunch…I think we’ve proven that after the impact of Hurricane Maria,” Cordova said. “We’ve been kind of tested again with some earthquakes and then tested again with this pandemic and now, it’s just another bump in the road.”

The Verge

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