One of the cables at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico popped a few days ago, tearing a 30-meter-long cable in its giant radio antenna. The facility has since, been closed, enough time for engineers to assess the extent of the damage.
The Arecibo, commissioned in 1963, was until 2016 the largest single-dish radio telescope in the world (300 meters in diameter). It has since been dethroned by the Chinese FAST (Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope) radio telescope, located in Guizhou province, its opening of 500 meters.
Since its commissioning, it has enabled the tracking of many asteroids close to Earth. SETI has also relied on it for years to “listen” to the skies for possible signals of extraterrestrial civilizations. In fact, not all of these attempts at communication were one-sided. In 1974, astronomers used the observatory to send the famous “Arecibo Message” to M13, a globular cluster located 25,000 light years from Earth.
The observatory’s fame also extends beyond the scientific community alone. Several scenes from the 1995 James Bond movie “Goldeneye” were notably shot in its enclosure. Arecibo also played a leading role in the science fiction movie Contact (1997), based on the eponymous Carl Sagan novel released in 1985.
Since its inception, the observatory has also faced several threats. The powerful Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico three years ago, notably forced engineers to take the telescope offline for several months. This time, however, it’s a little more serious. The University of Central Florida, one of the operators of Arecibo, broke the news on its website.
According to engineers, one of the auxiliary cables supporting a metal platform, located above the observatory, broke on Monday, August 10. Following this rupture, a piece of the cable would then have cut the reflector antenna of the telescope for at least 30 meters.
The cause of this cable break and the duration of repair of the telescope is currently unknown.
“We have a team of experts assessing the situation,” Francisco Cordova, director of Arecibo, said in a statement given UCF Today. Our goal is to ensure the safety of our staff, to protect facilities and equipment, and to get the facility back up to speed as soon as possible, so that it can continue to help scientists around the world. “
It remains to be seen how much it will cost to repair the antenna, and whether the various operating agencies will pay for this work. Which is not for granted. Indeed, the observatory had already been in the hot seat for several years due to lack of funding.
The US National Science Foundation (NSF), which manages the facility, said it was trying to find new partners to keep the radio telescope running. It costs around $ 12 million a year to operate it.