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On brink of collapse Arecibo Observatory telescope to be decommissioned

National Science Foundation facility suffered two cable breaks

The world’s second largest radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory is on the verge of collapse following two structural support cables mysteriously snapping and will be be decommissioned as soon as possible, officials with the National Science Foundation announced Thursday.

The news is a huge blow to the science community that relies on the 305-meter telescope in Puerto Rico to monitor asteroids, planets and make more other-worldly discoveries.

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The University of Central Florida manages the observatory for the National Science Foundation. While some of the facility will remain operational the telescope was the most well-known part of Arecibo and had operated for 57 years.

On Aug. 10, a cable collapsed crashing down into the 1,000-foot dish, damaging about 250 panels. Then, while plans were still being made to safe and repair the dish, another failed on Nov. 6.

With those two cables gone, engineers informed UCF that if another were to fail, the two remaining would undergo demands too great and break, threatening the structures near the giant dish.

Thornston Tomasetti was hired by UCF to conduct the structural analysis after the first cable break. On Nov. 12, the project manager sent Ray Lugo, the director of Florida Space Institute at UCF, a letter of the impending structural collapse.

“A catastrophic failure would be very likely,” John Abruzzo, with Thornston Tomasetti, wrote. “These cables are not capable of handling the required dynamic demands of a sudden failure of an adjacent cable.”

NSF Assistant Director for the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate Sean Jones said in a call with reporters Thursday the decision was made to attempt a controlled removal of the dish before it collapses. The decision was purely made for safety reasons and to prevent further damages to buildings around the dish, including the educational center and LIDAR facility.

“After reviewing all of the engineering assessments, NSF has concluded that this resent damage to the 305-meter telescope cannot be addressed without risking the lives and safety of workers and staff,” Jones said. “And NSF has decided to begin the process of planning for controlled decommissioning of the 305 telescope.”

Should another cable break the platform across the dish weighing 900 tons could collapse into the dish, according to NSF.

In a statement, UCF President Alexander Cartwright said the team worked tirelessly with NSF to find a way to save the telescope.

“While this outcome is not what we had been working towards, and we are disheartened to see such an important scientific resource decommissioned, safety is our top priority,” Cartwright said. “At a time when public interest and scientific curiosity about space and the skies has re-intensified, there remains much to understand about the data that has been acquired by Arecibo. Despite this disappointing setback, we remain committed to the scientific mission in Arecibo and to the local community.”

Arecibo is a three fold purpose facility, supporting astronomy and astrophysics, atmospheric and ionosphere research and lastly providing solar system astronomy and asteroid observations. The observatory has been Earth’s best line of defense watching for potentially hazardous asteroids.

Arecibo has a LIDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging, facility that will remain in use for Earth atmospheric and ionospheric research but even that will be impacted because the large dish played a part in some of those observations.

However, research will also continue long after the dish is gone, says Lugo, using the 3.5 petabytes, or a million gigabytes, of data collected.

“There may be a bunch of discoveries, in all this data, that we haven’t made, because the tools that we had to analyze the data when we took these observations are not as good as the ones we have now,” Lugo said.

Now the director of UCF’s Florida Space Institute, Lugo is a former NASA director who wrote the proposal to take over managing the observatory in 2017 for the National Science Foundation. The university plans to continue to make sure the facility serves as a culture icon for Puerto Rico and as an educational resource.

Lugo was living in Puerto Rico when construction began in 1963 but as a first grader didn’t realize the significance and the size of the observatory. Later in life, he realized the educational impact the observatory had on students who visited, either from the island or as visiting researchers from around the world.

“There’s thousands of people that have a story that they can share with Arecibo,” Lugo said. “When when the first cable broke, some of our supporters have been holding vigils.”

Despite being in the middle of a jungle landscape and facing down hurricanes and Earthquakes Arecibo has served as a guiding light for many to pursue careers in science. Prior to Hurricane Maria, the observatory hosted about 100,000 students a year.

Lugo described the outpouring from students who told the National Science Foundation of its importance to them.

“Numerous students stood up and testified to the NSF, the importance of the Arecibo Observatory and their making a decision to pursue, first a college degree, and then a college degree in a STEM related field,” Lugo said.

Previously, Cornell University managed the observatory for more than 40 years. Lugo said UCF has the same intention.

Engineers are now determining a safe-controlled way to bring down the dish. It’s expected to take several weeks.


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