July 16, 2024

The Arecibo telescope is facing a catastrophic collapse and must be dismantled

The Arecibo telescope is facing a catastrophic collapse and must be dismantled

One of the world’s most famous astronomical observatories has collapsed beyond repair. Now it threatens to collapse completely.

next Two unexpected cable breaks, Engineers determined that Arecibo’s 1,000-foot (305-meter) wireless telescope is structurally unsound to the point that any workers trying to repair it would risk their lives. So the National Science Foundation, which owns the Puerto Rico telescope, decided to shut it down.

Engineers are now racing to find out how to safely dismantle one of the world’s largest radio telescopes before it collapses in itself. The structure is so unstable that engineers cannot even approach it to assess the risks and timing of such a breakdown.

“Even attempts at stabilization or testing of cables can accelerate catastrophic failure,” Ralph Jaum, director of the NSF’s Department of Astronomy, told a news conference Thursday morning.

“It’s like losing someone important in your life.”

At the age of 57, the Arecibo Telescope searched for dangerous asteroids near Earth, looked for signs of alien life, and discovered the first planet outside our solar system. In 1974, Arecibo came out The strongest broadcast Earth has ever sent out to communicate with potential aliens. In 2016, he discovered the first repetitive fast radio explosions – mysterious space signals that scientists now think are coming Of the dead stars.

But the woes of Arecibo began in August, shortly after Tropical Storm Isaias passed over the island. An additional 3-inch-thick cable extruded from its socket in one of the telescope’s three towers and It crashed into a reflector dish below. Tear 100 feet into planks.

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Arecibo observatory cable fall dish damage

A hole in a 1,000-foot-wide reflective dish at the Arecibo Observatory ruptured when a cable fell on August 10, 2020.

Arecibo Observatory

Then in early November, just before repairs began in earnest, a 15,000-pound main cable broke from the same tower and smashed into the saucer. Engineers believed the chassis was still strong enough to avoid a second disaster – and that cable was only holding 60% of its rated load capacity – but the failure proved them wrong. They decided that they could no longer trust any of the remaining cables.

Both failed cables supported a massive metal platform suspended above the plate. Engineers found that if another cable from the same tower broke down, the platform would fall with it.

“The 900-ton platform will completely collapse into the main disc, and the three main towers over 300 feet are likely to collapse,” Gome said.

Arecibo Puerto Rico Observatory

Arecibo Observatory as seen in 2012. The platform and the Gregorian dome are suspended above a reflective plate.

Global Photo Collection via Getty Images

Dismantling the telescope means giving up any chance to save it, but that is the course of action recommended by three engineering firms.

“This decision is not an easy decision for the National Science Foundation. But the safety of people is our number one priority,” said Shawn Jones, assistant director of the National Science Foundation’s Directorate of Mathematical and Physical Sciences.

By moving quickly, NSF hopes to salvage a group of buildings located directly below one of the telescope pylons. That way, the Arecibo observatory could remain open – but without its distinguishing feature.

“When I learned the news, I was very shocked,” Abel Mendes, director of the Planetary Living Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico in Arecibo, told Business Insider. He has been around the observatory since he was 10 years old and has worked with him professionally for the past decade.

He said, “It’s hard to bear. It’s like losing someone important in your life. Yes, 2020 – it’s not good.”

The United States lost its best asteroid hunter and space student

The loss of the Arecibo telescope is a huge blow to humanity’s search for alien life, our ability to defend the planet from asteroids, and the entire field of radio astronomy.

Mendes said that although Arecibo does not detect potentially dangerous space rocks, it is useful in investigating them: The observatory can test such objects’ radar contact to decode their shape, rotation, surface properties, and path through space.

Coastal asteroid

An artist’s depiction of an asteroid collision 65 million years ago that caused the dinosaurs to disappear.

Don Davis / NASA

Without this data, it is difficult to know if an asteroid is hurling toward Earth.

Gaume said the Arecibo Observatory plans to work with scientists who intend to use the telescope to find ways to take their research elsewhere. Other NSF facilities – the National Observatory of Radio Astronomy in Virginia and the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia – can take in some Arecibo science.

However, Mendes said Green Bank is only 10% to 20% sensitive to weak radio signals like Arecibo. So it is believed that the death of the telescope effectively ends the US opportunity in a comprehensive project to search for radio waves from alien technology.

“The only place we have to do something like that, which is sensitive or more sensitive than Arecibo, is now fast in China,” Mendez said, referring to the spherical radio telescope with aperture of five hundred meters high in Guizhou Province. “The United States lost all that capacity because it does not have Arecibo.”

Mendez said Arecibo and FAST are “big eyes” of Earth in radio astronomy.

He explained: “If you are monitoring an important source in the weak radio spectrum, you need two large radio telescopes: one pointing at something during the day and the other during the night.” “If you lose Arecibo, you lose the ability to monitor – 24 hours a day – a dim source of radio signals.”

He added, “Now we have one eye.”

We are working against the clock

It will probably take about five or six weeks to figure out how to safely dismantle the Arecibo telescope. Engineers will evaluate their options from afar, as drones capture aerial photos.

Engineers are also studying ways to buy extra time, such as potentially tilting the towers a few inches to reduce weight on remaining cables.

“We’re working against the clock,” Gaume said.

Technical reports illustrating the death of Arecibo are included below.

If engineers can dismantle the telescope before it destroys itself, the Arecibo Observatory will still be able to do some scientific research. LIDAR lasers can study Earth’s upper atmosphere and ionosphere. It also has a facility on Culebra Island that collects data on cloud cover and precipitation.

Future researchers can still analyze archived data from the telescope.