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An Asteroid-Hunting Telescope Has Gone Silent. What Does That Mean For Astronomy?

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

A radio telescope tasked with searching for near-Earth asteroids has gone quiet after suffering damage to its 350 meter dish.

The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico is the largest active telescope in the world. A support cable snapped which caused the telescope’s receiver to crash into the panels of the reflective platform. The telescope was temporarily shut down due to the damage.

Arecibo observes radio waves as a way to study astronomical phenomena and planetary movements. It’s under the administration of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC) and has been managed by UCF since April 2018.

One of Arecibo’s main tasks is to search for near-Earth asteroids that could pose a threat to our planet. “It looks for asteroids, it can look at their shapes, and their rotation rates and if they have moons,” said UCF planetary scientist Addie Dove.

LISTEN: University of Central Florida’s scientists and hosts of the podcast Walkabout the Galaxy Addie Dove, Jim Cooney, and Josh Colwell gave their insights on what the damage of the iconic telescope means for the scientific community.

Arecibo is part of a larger network of observatories, which means we won’t miss a possible asteroid zooming towards Earth. However without Arecibo astronomers might miss out on exact measurements and data from these objects like asteroids.

“Those observations from the other observatories will carry on but with a sort of missing piece,” said UCF planetary scientist Josh Colwell.

The radio telescope was the largest until 2016 when China built a 500 meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope, also called FAST.

However, Arecibo is still the biggest active telescope,which means it has the ability to not only receive signals from space but send them out into the universe.

“It sends a signal that says ‘Hey, we’re here!’ that in theory someone somewhere else could pick up,” said Dove.

The observatory can observe different parts of the sky because the receiver that is suspended over it can move around, pointing at different locations. That has enabled scientists to detect smaller celestial bodies.

Before the damage, the telescope was detecting binary asteroids — those are rocky bodies with moons of their own.

While the damage may look bad, scientists are optimistic it will come back online soon.
“It’s actually only a couple pieces of the telescope dish that are destroyed,” said UCF cosmologist Jim Cooney. “Hopefully we’ll be able to get this back up and running.”

There is an ongoing assessment on the site but it is still unclear how long it will take to get the telescope back up and running again.

Although the technical failure will cause some delay in astronomical observations, astronomers say if an asteroid were to hit the earth, it would definitely not catch us by surprise.

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