December 3, 2020


Aim for Excellence

Asteroid-Hunting Telescope Is Being Urgently Taken Down to Avoid ‘Catastrophic’ Collapse

One particular of the world’s most legendary astronomical observatories has fallen apart past fix. Now...

One particular of the world’s most legendary astronomical observatories has fallen apart past fix. Now it threatens to collapse totally.

Following two unpredicted cable breaks, engineers have identified that the Arecibo Observatory’s 1,000-foot (305-metre) radio telescope is so structurally unsound that any staff who test to correct it would threat their lives. So the Nationwide Science Foundation, which owns the Puerto Rico telescope, has decided to decommission it.


Now engineers are racing to figure out how to safely and securely deconstruct one particular of the world’s largest radio telescopes just before it collapses on alone. The composition is so unstable that engineers are not able to even solution it to evaluate the danger and timing of these types of a collapse.

“Even makes an attempt at stabilisation or testing the cables could final result in accelerating the catastrophic failure,” Ralph Gaume, director of the NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences, mentioned in a push convention Thursday morning.

Suspended radio-antenna and its guidance towers could collapse into the dish. (NAIC Arecibo Observatory/NSF Business Insider)

‘It’s like shedding a person critical in your life’

In its 57-12 months life span, the Arecibo telescope has hunted for hazardous around-Earth asteroids, searched for symptoms of alien existence, and found the initial planet past our photo voltaic method. In 1974, Arecibo beamed out the most effective broadcast Earth has ever despatched to converse with potential aliens.

In 2016, it detected the 1st repeating fast radio bursts – mysterious place signals that scientists now imagine come from lifeless stars.

But Arecibo’s woes began in August, shortly following Tropical Storm Isaias handed in excess of the island. A 3-inch-thick auxiliary cable popped out of its socket on a person of the telescope’s a few towers and crashed into the reflector dish beneath. It tore a 100-foot (30.5-metre) gash in the panels.


Then in early November, just prior to repairs have been established to commence in earnest, a 15,000-pound (16,800-kg) key cable from the very same tower broke and crashed into the dish.

Engineers had believed the structure was nonetheless strong adequate to stay away from a next disaster – and this cable was carrying just 60 per cent of its approximated load capacity – but the failure proved them improper. They made a decision they could no extended trust any of the remaining cables.

Equally unsuccessful cables experienced been supporting an monumental steel platform hanging above the dish. If another cable from the very same tower ended up to are unsuccessful, engineers located, the system would tumble with it.

“The whole 900-ton system will come crashing down into the main disk, and it can be probable that the a few principal towers by themselves, which are more than 300 ft tall, will topple,” Gaume said.

Deconstructing the telescope implies abandoning any chance of preserving it, but it truly is the training course of action a few engineering corporations recommended.

“This conclusion is not an uncomplicated 1 for NSF to make. But protection of people is our quantity a single precedence,” Sean Jones, assistant director for the NSF’s Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate, explained.


By shifting quickly, the NSF hopes to salvage a established of properties that lay directly under a single of the telescope’s towers. That way, the Arecibo Observatory can stay open – but without its defining attribute.

“When I realized of the news, I was totally devastated,” Abel Mendez, director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo, instructed Business Insider. He has been about the observatory given that he was 10 years outdated and worked with it professionally for the final decade.

“It’s really hard to take. It really is like shedding someone vital in your existence. Yeah, 2020 – it’s not superior,” he claimed.

The reflector dish was damaged when a support cable broke in August 2020. (Arecibo Observatory)The reflector dish was damaged when a support cable broke in August 2020. (Arecibo Observatory)

The US has lost its greatest asteroid hunter and alien seeker

The decline of Arecibo’s telescope is a important blow to humanity’s search for alien lifestyle, our means to protect the world from asteroids, and the overall field of radio astronomy.

Mendez explained that while Arecibo doesn’t learn potentially dangerous place rocks, it truly is instrumental in investigating them: The observatory can ping these objects with radar to decrypt their shape, rotation, floor features, and trajectory via house.


Without that details, it really is much more durable to know if an asteroid is hurtling toward Earth.

The Arecibo Observatory strategies to function with researchers who’d supposed to use the telescope to come across ways to transfer their investigation somewhere else, Gaume claimed. Other NSF amenities – the Nationwide Radio Astronomy Observatory in Virginia and the Green Lender Observatory in West Virginia – could most likely take on some Arecibo science.

Even so, Mendez claimed that Green Bank is only 10 to 20 per cent as sensitive to weak radio alerts as Arecibo. So he thinks the telescope’s demise correctly ends the US’s opportunity at a comprehensive task to research for radio waves from alien technology.

“The only area that we have to do anything like that, that would be sensitive or a lot more delicate than Arecibo, is now Rapidly in China,” Mendez said, referring to the 5-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical radio Telescope in Guizhou province. “The United States misplaced all that ability simply because it doesn’t have Arecibo.”

Arecibo and Quick, Mendez reported, ended up Earth’s “two massive eyes” in radio astronomy.

“If you are monitoring a source of curiosity which is in the weak radio spectrum, you need two massive radio telescopes: just one pointing in the direction of something throughout the working day and the other by the nighttime,” he explained. “If you eliminate Arecibo, then you shed the potential to monitor – 24 hours a working day – a faint resource of radio indicators.”

He additional: “Now we just have 1 eye.”

‘We’re doing the job towards the clock’

It will likely just take about 5 or 6 months to determine out how to safely and securely deconstruct the Arecibo telescope. Engineers will assess their choices from afar, with drones snapping aerial pics.

The engineers are also thinking of approaches to purchase more time, these as potentially tilting the towers a couple of inches to lower fat on the remaining cables.

“We are working in opposition to the clock,” Gaume explained.

The complex stories that spell the death of Arecibo can be located right here.

If engineers can choose apart the telescope in advance of it destroys alone, the Arecibo Observatory will however be in a position to conduct some scientific investigation. Its LIDAR lasers can study Earth’s higher environment and ionosphere. It also has a facility on the island of Culebra that collects knowledge on cloud address and precipitation.

Long run scientists could also however analyse archived details from the telescope.

This write-up was initially posted by Business Insider.

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