The collapse of the iconic radio telescope by Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, astronomers last month left a series of questions about what went wrong and what comes next.
During a virtual town hall event held at the 237th conference of the American Astronomical Society on Monday (January 11), officials from the National Science Foundation (NSF), which owns the facility, offered the most detailed narrative to date of the events that led to the uncontrolled collapse of the telescope the 1st of December.
The event was the agency’s first presentation to researchers since the plant collapsed, and officials stressed their connection to researchers around the world who had ties to Arecibo. “We at NSF are extremely grateful that the safety zones were adequate and that no one was physically injured,”
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“I say ‘physically hurt’ because we want to communicate clearly that we understand that this was a very traumatic event that affected many people,” Zauderer said. “There is a lot of pain.”
Zauderer’s comments focused on giving astronomers a detailed sense of the events surrounding the collapse of a timeline that began in 2017, when Hurricanes Irma and Maria mishandlet Puerto Rico. The plant was preparing to begin repair work on resulting damage when a cable failed in August. (The hurricane repair included the replacement of another cable that was connected to a different supporting tower than the cables that eventually failed when the crash scenario unfolded.)
But then before dawn on August 10, one of the massive cables holding up the 900-ton science platform slipped out of the socket. Engineers assessed the situation, decided that the structure should still be stable, and began to develop a repair strategy. Meanwhile, the investigation into what went wrong also began, Zauderer said.
“The failed outlet was removed and sent to the NASA Kennedy Forensic Laboratory in early October to try to understand why this failed, and then help us understand that other outlets are also at risk,” she said. .
Again, a repair plan came together and the plant was ready to start work only to get disaster strike again when another cable attached to the same tower broke on 6 November. In the wake of the second failure, the NSF concluded that there was no sure way to stabilize or save the plant and began evaluating ways to shut down the telescope in a controlled manner, a decision it announced on Nov. 19, though Zauderer told total astronomers that the NSF still held out hope.
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“Even though we said we were planning to shut down at the time, we were still looking for more information, so if new information came out that there was a safe way to repair the telescope, we were ready to switch,” he said. hun.
That shift was never possible; the platform collapsed through the 1,000-foot (305-meter) bowl during December 1, destroying the radio telescope.
“That’s not what any of us wanted,” Zauderer said. “NSF has been working very hard since August to enable a stabilization plan.”
However, the future of the site is still unknown Congress has joined astronomers and Puerto Ricans by asking for an update on the facility – what happened, what NSF wants to do with the observatory and associated cost estimates – before the end of February. The request comes as part of omnibus bill financing the agency through this fiscal year ending September 30; Ralph Gaume, director of the NSF’s Department of Astronomical Sciences, referred to the congressional request under City Hall, but did not give details on how the NSF will meet it.
Zauderer told Space.com that teams began evaluating how to safely clean up the site on the day of the collapse. “The work is very active, but it will take a long time due to the amount of waste and the need to go safely and with appropriate environmental protection measures,” she wrote.
But Zauderer noted during the presentation that the crash did not destroy the iconic dish of the radio telescope. “About 50% of the reflector is still intact,” she said. “We are currently considering weighing the pros and cons of holding part, rebuilding or what can be done about it.”
Email Meghan Bartels at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.