“The telescope is in danger of catastrophic failure,” NSF wrote in a November statement. “Any attempt at repairs could put workers in potentially life-threatening danger.” As such, NSF announced Thursday that it will dismantle the array before it can come down by itself.
“Until these assessments came in, our question was not whether the observatory should be repaired, but how,” Ralph Gaume, director of the astronomy department of the National Science Foundation, told New York Times on Thursday. “But in the end, a preponderance of data showed we simply could not do it safely.”
In 1959, Cornell University entered into a contract with ARPA to control a giant new radio telescope built at the base of the karst, just outside Arecibo, Puerto Rico. The following year, crews broke ground when Cornell astronomer William E. Gordon oversaw the design and construction of the telescope, officially known as the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC). Site management transferred in 2018 to the University of Central Florida, Yang Enterprises and UMET.
Completed in 1963, the Arecibo Telescope was originally commissioned to study the ionosphere, one of Gordon’s specialties. However, the rationale behind the telescope’s construction actually grew out of an ARPA defense program that sought to create an early detection system for incoming nuclear missiles by spotting the atmospheric ionization generated by their rapid friction. At that time, we did not have a very solid understanding of the Earth’s upper atmosphere, hence the need for a NAIC. The telescope was also secretly used to sniff for Soviet radar sites by detecting signals that had jumped out of the moon.
The Arecibo telescope was simply massive. Its primary collection bowl measures more than 1,000 meters in diameter and is covered by nearly 39,000 individual aluminum sheets. With a total collection area of 73,000 square meters, NAIC stood as the largest single aperture telescope on the planet from the date of its completion in 1963 to 2016, when China completed its FAST telescope. The cables that broke were two of 18 running between a trio of concrete support towers used to support a 900-ton receiver suspended nearly 500 feet above the bowl surface.
Its gigantic footprint allowed the Arecibo telescopic functions, which smaller places simply could not match. As such, the competition to use the facility was brutal, necessitating an impartial panel of three people who only allocated observation time to only the most promising research. Even with the strict recording policy, about 200 scientists visited the telescope every year.
It was used in a wide range of scientific studies – observing everything from the Earth’s upper atmosphere and the sun’s heliophysics to rapid radio explosions and pulse emissions. In fact, the first exoplanets ever found were discovered in orbit around a pulsar, PSR 1257 + 12, using the Arecibo telescope. What’s more, Arecibo was behind the first detection of gravitational waves created by pulsars. This discovery ended with winning a Nobel in 1993. The telescope has also provided invaluable help in the search for extraterrestrial life.
The first attempt came on November 16, 1974 with what is today known as the Arecibo Message. As part of a celebration marking the telescope’s recent rebuild, researchers from SETI blew up a radio signal – “the most powerful broadcast ever deliberately radiated into space”, according to DARPA – against the globular cluster M13. It delivered a seven-part message devised by Cornell astronomer Frank Drake (as in Drake’s equation) and Carl Sagan. We have not yet heard back. The Arecibo telescope also generated the data that the SETI @ home project chewed through, while the similar Edison @ Home program discovered nearly two dozen new pulsars within Arecibo’s series of data.
The telescope had experienced a number of difficulties in recent decades, including damage from Hurricane Maria in 2017 and unreliable financing. Yet the NSF’s decision has come as a gut shock to the scientific community. Think about what the Golden Gate Bridge means to San Francisco, what the Statue of Liberty means to New Yorkers. Arecibo is this and more to Puerto Rico because it has gone beyond an icon, ”Edgard Rivera-Valentín of the Lunar and Planetary Institute wrote to national geography. “For some of us, the goal was to reach the symbol that we can achieve great things, the pride that is in our own backyard; we served the entire planet. ”
Others, such as planetary scientist Ed Rivera-Valentín, have responded to the news with fond memories of their experiences there:
I have such a vivid memory for the first time I visited Arecibo. My family took me as a child, about 4 or 5 years old. I was in awe. This facility … was in my backyard! This goal of science was here in Puerto Rico. We were part of the science. I was a part of science. pic.twitter.com/u3zaZOzG6D
– Ed Rivera-Valentín 🇵🇷🏳️🌈 (@PlanetTreky) November 19, 2020
Still others viewed the situation more pragmatically. “I would say that the Arecibo closure is bad for SETI, but not catastrophic,” said Dr. Christopher Conselice, Professor of Extragalactic Astronomy at the University of Manchester, to Engadget. “It’s a very sensitive telescope for searching for signals, but is not the only game in town anymore.”
“For example, $ 100 million. The breakthrough project is other telescopes, including Jodrell Bank in the UK and the Allen array, but does not use Arecibo, ”he continued. “But since we do not know how or where a SETI signal is displayed, the loss of Arecibo could potentially mean we miss a detection.”
While it ceases to operate, the plant will not be demolished. Instead, only the 305 meter high telescope comes down and the process has already started. NSF also uses a fleet of HD camera drones to conduct photographic surveys of the area. There is still no timetable for when the shutdown should be completed.
“For nearly six decades, the Arecibo Observatory has served as a beacon for cutting-edge science and what a partnership with a community can look like,” NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said in a statement Thursday. “While this is a profound change, we will be looking for ways to help the scientific community and maintain a strong relationship with the people of Puerto Rico.”