Damages another test for ‘resilient’ Arecibo Observatory but the science goes on

Cause of cable snap unknown, new research on hold for now

ORLANDO, Fla. – How long the Arecibo Observatory will be unable to observe asteroids, planets and the greater universe is still unknown Friday after a cable snapped, crashing down on the telescope’s giant reflector dish earlier this week, however, there is still a wealth of knowledge to be gained from already available data.

Arecibo Observatory, the world’s second largest telescope, located in Puerto Rico, was damaged Monday around 2:45 a.m. when an auxiliary cable, designed to last up to 40 years, broke away from one of the observatory’s structural towers, Arecibo Director Francisco Cordova said in a call with reporters Friday.

No one was injured during the mishap.

About 250 panels in the 1,000-foot dish were damaged but Cordova said the panels aren’t the main concern because out of 40,000 that make up the reflector dish, 250 is a small number.

“The primary reflector is in good shape, but our focus is really making sure that the platform has the structural stability needed to operate in the future,” Cordova said.

The University of Central Florida manages the National Science Foundation facility, along with Universidad Ana G. Mendez and Yang Enterprises.

[UCF released new aerial video of the damages on Friday. View the video at the top of this story.]

The reflective dish of the Observatory is one of the largest in the world at 1,000 feet in diameter and 167 feet deep. It covers an area of about 20 acres, according to UCF. For years Arecibo was also the largest telescope but earlier this year China opened its FAST Observatory, which spans more than 1,600 feet.

Ray Lugo, director of the Florida Space Institute and UCF’s lead researcher at the facility, is on the ground in Puerto Rico working with the observatory teams to make a plan to stabilize and secure the platform.

Damage to the Arecibo Observatory collecting dish after a cable snapped on Aug. 10,2020. (Image: UCF/Arecibo Observatory) (WKMG 2020)

Teams are conducting a forensic analysis of the cable that snapped to determine the cause but it’s still too early to say what happened. Cordova said the cable should have lasted up to another 20 years and was installed about 20 years ago.

The cable is 3.25 inches in diameter and specially designed for its purpose, according to Lugo. They are currently getting estimates of how much it will cost to get a new custom cable along with the cost of instillation. They expect to have more information by the end of next week.

“These are typically things that you order and it’s months to get a cable like this ... the processes, you know, finding out who’s got the cable and the end fitting so that we can get a good cost estimate,” Lugo said.

In the meantime, Cordova said they are working to attach smaller temporary cables to secure the platform structure until the permanent replacement arrives.

This isn’t the first setback for the facility utilized by scientists from all over the globe. Located in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, the telescope was still undergoing repairs from Hurricane Marie in 2017.

Cordova described the damage as “another bump in the road” for the observatory but the scientific importance of the facility still remains and it will bounce back.

“We are a pretty resilient bunch and, you know, I think we’ve proven that after the impact of Hurricane Maria, then we’ve been kind of tested again with some earthquakes and then tested again with this pandemic,” Cordova said. “It’s a significant event. But, you know, we’re working really hard to just make sure that we reestablish capability continuing forward.”

Arceibo has been used in research that led to a 1993 Nobel Prize in physics and was features in several movies includes “Goldeneye” and “Contact.”

About 120 staff live at the facility and around 200 scientists a year visit the Observatory and schedule time to work on their research, according to UCF.

While research from Arecibo will still go on because there is still new data to analyze, the Observatory notified all scientists that new observation time would be put on hold.

“Our science teams are still hard at work,” Cordova said. ”We have plenty of Arecibo data to analyze, you’re actually you’re probably see some some artsy publications here pretty soon be announced next couple weeks.”