Famed Arecibo Telescope to Be Demolished

James Marshall
November 21, 2020

The damage on the Arecibo Observatory.

The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, once the largest radio telescope in the world made famous by appearances in films including "Goldeneye, " "Species" and "Contact, " will have to be demolished because failures in cables have left its instrument platform suspended above the reflecting dish too unstable to fix.

In August, an auxiliary cable slipped from its socket in one of the towers and left a 100-foot gash in the dish below.

Last week, one of the telescope's main steel cables that was capable of sustaining 544,000 kilograms snapped under only 283,000 kilograms. "There is a serious risk of an unexpected and uncontrolled collapse", Gaume said. The dome, as described by National Geographic, is large enough to fit an entire house.

An engineering firm hired by the University of Central Florida has said it doesn't even want to risk a stress test on the remaining cables, concerned it could cause a catastrophic collapse.

Engineers have not yet determined the cause of the initial cable's failure, a NSF spokesperson said, but as the repairs required could not be done safely, a controlled demolition will be undertaken instead.

Wreckage is seen in a wide gash in the dish of the Arecibo telescope littered with foliage and overgrowth
The support cables fell and ripped large gashes in the telescope's reflector dish

"NSF prioritizes the safety of workers, Arecibo Observatory's staff and visitors, which makes this decision necessary, although unfortunate", NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said in a statement.

A second cable break on 7 November tore through Arecibo's dish panels and brought the suspended instrument platform to the verge of collapse.

"NSF has concluded that this recent damage to the 305-metre telescope can not be addressed without risking the lives and safety of work crews and staff", said Sean Jones, assistant director of the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate at NSF.

Nature reported that the telescope had been regularly upgraded, with several new instruments set to be installed in the coming years. The Arecibo Observatory Amateur Radio Club, KP4AO, is headquartered at the research facility, and several radio amateurs are employed there.

Nestled in the humid forests of Arecibo, the Puerto Rican observatory's vast structure had been used by scientists and astronomers around the world for decades to analyze distant planets, find potentially hazardous asteroids and hunt for signatures of extraterrestrial life.

The observatory's striking location - in the middle of a heavy forest - also made it a tourist spot and earned it several film appearances. While the observatory will soon cease to exist, its interplanetary message will live on - as will the memories of its use in astronomers' archives.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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