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Arecibo Observatory In Puerto Rico Shutting Down After Suffering Structural Damage

The main collecting dish is among the world’s largest single-dish radio telescopes. The reflective dish is 1,000 feet in diameter, 167 feet deep, and covers an area of about 20 acres. Photo: UCF
The main collecting dish is among the world’s largest single-dish radio telescopes. The reflective dish is 1,000 feet in diameter, 167 feet deep, and covers an area of about 20 acres. Photo: UCF

The National Science Foundation says it is shutting down the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico due to safety concerns. The move comes after two incidents this year, damaging the 57-year-old radio observatory.

A cable snapped back in August which sent pieces of the radio hardware into the dish, causing extensive damage. A second cable snapped earlier this month, causing further damage and concerns about further destabilization.

[caption id="attachment_169319" align="alignright" width="400"] Photo of damaged cable above Arecibo's main dish taken November 7, 2020. Photo: UCF[/caption]

An engineering survey found the damage to the observatory cannot be stabilized without risk to construction workers and staff. Even if the repairs could be done safely, the engineering team determined the structure would present long-term stability issues. Therefore, the NSF will decommission Arecibo Observatory's 1,000-foot telescope.

"NSF prioritizes the safety of workers, Arecibo Observatory’s staff and visitors, which makes this decision necessary, although unfortunate," said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. "While this is a profound change, we will be looking for ways to assist the scientific community and maintain that strong relationship with the people of Puerto Rico."

The observatory is managed in part by the University of Central Florida. Arecibo is one of the largest radio telescopes in the world, conducting all sorts of astronomical observations like tracking near-Earth asteroids.

The NSF said it will only decommission the damaged dish and keep other parts of the observatory functioning including its LIDAR facility, which is used in geospatial research, and the offsite Culebra research substation which analyzes cloud cover and precipitation data.

"While this outcome is not what we had been working towards, and we are disheartened to see such an important scientific resource decommissioned, safety is our top priority," said UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright.

"At a time when public interest and scientific curiosity about space and the skies has re-intensified, there remains much to understand about the data that has been acquired by Arecibo. Despite this disappointing setback, we remain committed to the scientific mission in Arecibo and to the local community."

UCF plans to work with the NSF by implementing safety plans and authorizations ahead of the decommissioning process. That work is not expected to start for several weeks. UCF said the goal is to bring down the telescope and its hardware, keeping as many parts in tact for future use.

It's unclear what kind of staffing impact the decommissioning will have on the facility. Arecibo Director Francisco Cordova said there's still a lot of work to be done at the facility, even with the main dish offline.

"We have a lot of data that we haven't yet had a chance to go over and analyze," said Cordova. "We're working on publications and working on scientific proposals. There's there's still a lot to do here at Arecibo."

While the observatory is important to scientific research, it received pop-culture notoriety in films like Contact and James Bond’s GoldenEye.

"I think the legacy at Arecibo is really a legacy of discovery and innovation that will continue to live on through the years just because it has impacted so many people in a positive way," said Cordova.

Brendan covers space news for WMFE, everything from rocket launches to the latest scientific discoveries in our universe. He hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration.