Repairs to Arecibo Observatory slow going to ensure safety before removing damaged parts

‘We are doing things right,' observatory director says

Damage to the Arecibo Observatory collecting dish. (Image: UCF) (WKMG 2020)

ORLANDO, Fla. – Engineering and safety teams from NASA and private companies have been working with the Arecibo Observatory to determine the next steps for repairing one of the world’s largest radio telescopes after it was damaged last month when a cable snapped, crashing down onto the giant reflector dish.

The Arecibo Observatory, located in Puerto Rico, was damaged Aug. 10 when an auxiliary cable, designed to last up to 40 years, broke away from one of the observatory’s structural towers. No one was injured during the mishap.

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

About 250 panels in the 1,000-foot dish were damaged but the panels aren’t the main concern because out of 40,000 that make up the reflector dish, 250 is a small number. However, the cable was custom made and designed to last for decades and will take time to manufacture and replace.

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Three firms will coordinate the investigation, analysis and repair of the dish and cable. Because they don’t yet know why the cable snapped in the first place teams plan to conduct a forensic analysis to determine the root cause, UCF said in a news release Thursday, but the broken components cannot be removed until a safety analysis of the structure is complete.

Using computer modeling Arecibo will complete a structural analysis to determine the cause of the cable failure and if any other areas of the telescope are at risk because of the cable break.

“This modeling will help frame the scope of repairs, along with costs and schedule,” UCF said in a news release. “And that’s why the analysis is key to the safety plan.”

Once the National Science Foundation is sent the analysis the damaged cable and socket will be removed soon after. The broken pieces will then allow for a full forensic investigation to determine what caused the cable to snap. A plan for temporary repairs will be made after the parts are removed.

It has been 30 days since the observatory has been unable to use the powerful radio telescope to study the universe, including track near-Earth asteroids. Scientists around the world rely on the observatory for their research.

“We know the process is taking a long time and we are eager to begin repairs,”Arecibo Observatory Director Francisco Cordova said. “However, this is a big and complex facility, so it is taking some time to ensure we are doing things right. We have to be sure we are taking all factors into consideration before moving forward with putting people on the telescope to remove those pieces. Once those are in hand, we expect the timeline to pick up the pace.”

Arecibo 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.

UCF and Arecibo plan to provide updates when plans for major milestones of the project are determined.

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