The National Science Foundation expects it will be several weeks before the disassembly of the telescope can begin.
After a review of engineering assessments, the U.S. National Science Foundation announced that the patient would begin planning the controlled shutdown of the 1
The observatory, which UCF administers for NSF under a collaboration agreement, has for 57 years served as a world-class resource for radio astronomy and planetary, solar system and geospace research. But a main cable break on November 6th called into question the structural integrity of the telescope.
Three engineering firms previously hired to address an auxiliary cable break at the plant in August assessed the telescope and sent their reports to the NSF. The record technician, Thornton Tomasetti, recommended shutting down the telescope because it found that the telescopic structure was in danger of a catastrophic failure. The NSF had two other groups to review the assessments and they agreed that carrying out repairs posed a risk to human life.
“Our team has worked tirelessly with the NSF to find ways to stabilize the telescope with minimal risk,” said UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright. “Although this result is not what we had been working for, and we are discouraged to see such an important scientific resource shut down, safety is our highest priority. At a time when public interest and scientific curiosity about space and the sky have intensified, much remains to be understood about the data acquired by Arecibo. Despite this disappointing setback, we remain committed to the scientific mission of Arecibo and the local community. ”
UCF will work with NSF to implement the security plans and authorizations needed to initiate the shutdown process. Work is not expected to begin for several weeks. The goal is to bring the telescope down, which includes the platform and the Gregorian dome, and keep as many other parts of the facility intact for future use.
NSF says it intends to restore the LIDAR facility used in geospatial research in Arecibo as well as the visitor center and offside Culebra research station, which analyzes cloud cover and precipitation data.
“The NSF prioritises the safety of workers and visitors to the Arecibo Observatory, making this decision necessary, even if it is unfortunate,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. For almost six decades, the Arecibo Observatory has served as a beacon for groundbreaking science and what a partnership with a community can look like. While this is a profound change, we will look for ways to help the scientific community and maintain the strong relationship with the people of Puerto Rico. ”
The beginning of Arecibo
The Arecibo Observatory was built from 1960 to 1963 and was the brainchild of Cornell University Physicist William Edwin Gordon. Cornell University was the first head of the site. The location was ideal for the telescope and would lead to decades of significant contributions in the areas of atmospheric science, planetary science, radio astronomy and radar astronomy.
AO’s telescope’s huge primary disk has been a workhorse for science. It was used to detect the first exoplanets and detect organic molecules outside our galaxy. The 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor for their work with Arecibo in monitoring a binary pulsar, which provides a rigorous test of Einstein’s theory of general relativity and the first proof of the existence of gravitational waves. Arecibo also helps NASA characterize asteroids that could pose a threat to Earth through the Agency’s near-Earth observation program at the Planetary Defense Coordination Office. The facility even appeared in a James Bond movie and X-Files TV series.
The site is considered a cultural treasure in Puerto Rico and is visited by thousands of school children each year and thousands of other visitors from around the world. The Visitor Center, built through private donations, also conducts several educational programs throughout the year that affect all students. NSF supports a Research Experience for Undergraduates program there every summer.
UCF became the facility’s manager in April 2018 after being awarded a $ 20.15 million, five-year grant. This is year three of the grant. Since arriving on board UCF, the facility secured new funding to continue NASA’s work and to design and guide new instruments planned to be added to the telescope over the next few years. Other researchers also secured funding to improve Arecibo, including a $ 5.8 million grant from Brigham Young University and Cornell University to design and mount a hypersensitive antenna (ALPACA) at the focal point of the telescope’s bowl.
In 2019, UCF extended the agreement with Microsoft, resulting in the observatory gaining access to a range of Azure services – from analytics to artificial intelligence – to developing a new platform that will help facilitate access and storage of the 12 petabytes of data the observatory has collected in its 50-year history. Once fully implemented, the new platform is expected to make robust information about planets, pulsars, asteroids and comets more readily available to researchers working in Arecibo and around the world. The work is underway.
The observatory continued to assist scientists with observations, which they turned into published journal articles, which expanded our knowledge of space and the Earth’s place in the solar system.
The plant has endured several hurricanes and earthquakes. It was damaged during Hurricane Maria in 2017, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency used the observatory’s helicopter landing site and other facilities as a staging site to provide supplies and assistance to the community. UCF worked to secure funding for repairs and improvement of the site after the hurricane. Work was underway when the first auxiliary cable broke in August 2020.
The cable slipped from the outlet into one of the towers, leaving a 100-foot gash in the bowl below. A team of experts was called in to investigate the cause of the breach and figure out a way to carry out repairs. UCF worked with NSF to assess the break and come up with a plan. The facility was closed and a monitoring team began monitoring all cables and platform as part of the facility’s safety and temporary emergency repair plan. Safety was a priority throughout the assessment process. Arecibo was waiting for a team of engineers who were expected to begin temporary emergency repairs in connection with the August incident when the main cable broke on Friday, November 6th.
Unlike the extra cable that failed, this main cable did not slip out of the socket. It broke and fell on the reflector bowl below, causing further damage to the bowl and other cables nearby. Both cables were connected to the same support tower. A safety zone was set up around the dish and only the staff needed to respond to the incident were allowed on site.
The second broken cable was unexpected. Engineering assessments for auxiliary cable faults showed that the structure was stable and the planning process to restore the telescope to operation was underway. Engineers subsequently found that the 3-inch main cable was snapped at about 60 percent of what should have been its minimum breaking strength during a period of calm weather, increasing the possibility that other cables are weaker than expected. Subsequent inspections via drones of the other cables revealed new wire breaks on some of the main cables.
All information was shared with the NSF, which notified the UCF of its decision on November 18th. The next steps are still lacking, and UCF is committed to working with that Puerto Rican community.
“There is still critical work to be done in atmospheric science, planetary science, radio astronomy and radar astronomy,” said President Cartwright. “UCF is ready to leverage its observatory experience to join other stakeholders in pursuing the kind of commitment and funding needed to continue and build on Arecibo’s contribution to science.”