Arecibo radio telescope, an icon of astronomy, is misplaced


The Nationwide Science Basis (NSF) will decommission Arecibo Observatory‘s large radio dish after harm has made the ability too harmful to restore, the company introduced at the moment (Nov. 19).

The announcement got here as scientists awaited a verdict in regards to the destiny of the enduring observatory after harm to the complicated cabling supporting a 900-ton science platform suspended over the dish. In August, a cable slipped out of its socket, however engineers evaluating the scenario deemed it steady; earlier this month, a second cable unexpectedly snapped, leaving Arecibo’s destiny far more perilous. After contemplating three separate engineering reviews, the NSF, which owns the property, has determined the ability is unstable sufficient that there’s no solution to restore the harm that doesn’t put personnel at undue threat.

“Our aim has been to discover a solution to protect the telescope with out inserting anybody’s security in danger,” Sean Jones, assistant director for the Mathematical and Bodily Sciences Directorate on the NSF, mentioned in a information convention at the moment. “Nevertheless, after receiving and reviewing the engineering assessments, we’ve discovered no path ahead that will enable us to take action safely. And we all know {that a} delay in resolution making leaves the whole facility susceptible to an uncontrolled collapse, unnecessarily jeopardizing individuals and likewise the extra amenities.”

Associated: Shedding Arecibo Observatory would create a gap that may’t be stuffed, scientists say

“The telescope is at the moment at severe threat of an surprising, uncontrolled collapse,” Ralph Gaume, director of NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences, mentioned. “Based on engineering assessments, even makes an attempt of stabilization or testing the cables may lead to accelerating the catastrophic failure. Engineers can not inform us the protection margin of the construction, however they’ve suggested NSF that the construction will collapse within the close to future by itself.” 

Security considerations loom 

Through the information convention, officers emphasised that the choice was primarily based on prioritizing security, not a mirrored image of the scientific work that Arecibo has executed over the previous many years or may proceed to do sooner or later, and that some hoped-for science can be misplaced with the ability.

“This resolution has nothing to do with the scientific deserves of Arecibo Observatory,” Gaume mentioned. “That isn’t a consideration. It is all about security.”

Guame added that the company will work with scientists who had been planning to make use of the Arecibo telescope and its different amenities with a purpose to relocate these deliberate analysis tasks wherever doable. Nevertheless, the ability was distinctive, significantly in its radar functionality, which was closely used to check near-Earth asteroids and different photo voltaic system objects.

“A number of the Arecibo science will switch; a few of it is not going to,” Gaume mentioned.

The officers additionally emphasised that if they’ll handle to decommission the telescope in a managed method, the opposite belongings at Arecibo Observatory — primarily, the customer middle, an atmospheric science instrument on website and a second atmospheric instrument on the neighboring island of Culebra — ought to survive.

A drone view of injury to a cable on the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico captured after a second cable failed on Nov. 6, 2020.  (Picture credit score: Courtesy of the NAIC – Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF)

Collapse menace a problem for decommissioning 

Each of the failed cables on Arecibo have been linked to the identical assist tower. An engineering evaluation accomplished after the second cable failed in November discovered that if yet another cable on that tower, dubbed Tower 4, failed, the platform would collapse into the dish and certain trigger the towers to topple. And since the cable assist system is already so fragile, the engineers did not see any solution to safely consider the scenario in additional element, a lot much less stabilize it.

“What we’re challenged with is a construction for which we do not perceive the protection margins, the engineering approaches to raised perceive the protection margins contain appreciable threat, and the engineering method to restore the construction seems to be extremely unsafe.”

Which means the scenario is risky sufficient that the NSF cannot assure the telescope can be decommissioned in a managed method. Gaume and Ashley Zauderer, this system director for Arecibo Observatory on the NSF, mentioned that the company has employed engineers to develop a plan for a managed decommissioning. Creating that plan and gathering the required approvals for it should take a number of weeks, they added.

The officers additionally declined to offer an thought of what that technique would appear to be, though they talked about the potential for helicopters or explosives to be thought-about.

Together with the information convention, the NSF supplied an engineering report from the agency main the evaluation of Arecibo Telescope after the second failure, which gives little extra element in regards to the facility’s destiny.

A picture exhibiting harm to Arecibo Telescope’s large dish after a cable slipped out of its socket in August 2020. (Picture credit score: UCF/AO)

“We imagine the construction will collapse within the close to future if left untouched,” John Abruzzo, managing principal of Thornton Tomasetti, wrote. “Managed demolition, designed with a selected collapse sequence decided and carried out with using explosives, will scale back the uncertainty and hazard related to collapse.”

The severity of the scenario stems from each the truth that two cables have already failed, and the way in which three separate engineering consultants have been caught off-guard by the second failure. “The three skilled corporations that we introduced in did not present any enter or any inkling that there was a problem,” Gaume mentioned of the principle cables after the August failure.

“It’s, I believe, simply actually unlucky that this most important cable failed earlier than we had an opportunity to get issues stabilized,” Zauderer mentioned.

The NSF officers mentioned that proper now, their precedence is concentrated on safely decommissioning the radio dish and defending as a lot of the opposite amenities on-site as doable. However they did emphasize that they aren’t decommissioning Arecibo Observatory as a complete, that they acknowledge the ability’s significance in Puerto Rico, and that in the long run, they wish to guarantee the way forward for the location and the science that it has fostered for many years.

“We’re discussing the decommissioning of a construction product of metal and cables, but it surely actually is the individuals on which have the concepts,” Zauderer mentioned. “It is the thought of discovery that led to the development to start out with, it is the eagerness of the people who work on the observatory … to proceed to discover, to study, that’s the true coronary heart and soul of Arecibo.”

“It is not the telescope that is the guts and soul, it is the individuals.”

E mail Meghan Bartels at or comply with her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Comply with us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Fb. 


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