The days of Arecibo are done. After failing two support cables in recent months, the 305-meter-wide dish of the radio observatory is damaged unrepaired, the National Science Foundation announced on November 19 that it will be dismantled and dismantled.
“It’s a death in the family,” says astronomer Martha Haynes of Cornell University, who has used the telescope in Puerto Rico to study hydrogen in the universe since she just left college in 1973. “For those of us who use Arecibo and hoped to use it in the future, it's a disaster. "
The telescope, famous for appearances in films such as GoldenEye and Contact, consists of a wide plate to collect radio waves from space and focus them on detectors housed in a dome suspended above the plate. In August, one of the cables holding the dome slipped from a socket and drilled a hole in the plate.
The NSF and the University of Central Florida, which manages the telescope, had plans to repair the cable, Haynes said. But then a second cable unexpectedly broke on November 6th. If a third cable broke, it could send the platform holding the dome swaying or the entire structure could collapse.
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The NSF determined there was no safe way to repair the telescope, the agency announced on Nov. 19.
“Until these assessments came in, our question was not whether the observatory should be repaired but how,” Ralph Gaume, director of NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences, said in a statement. "But in the end, a preponderance of data showed that we just couldn't do it safely. And that's a line we can't cross."
The closure is the latest in a series of near-disasters for Arecibo. A different cable was damaged in an earthquake in 2014. Repairs to that cable were delayed in Hurricane Maria in 2017, which temporarily closed the observatory when Puerto Rico endured widespread power outages and humanitarian crises (SN: 29/9/17). And the observatory has been the victim of threatened or real budget cuts for years (SN: 17/11/17).
But its loss is a severe blow to astronomy. Built in 1963, Arecibo was one of the best facilities in the world for observations ranging from mysterious explosions of radio waves from deep space (SN: 2/7/20) to tracking asteroids close to Earth that could potentially collide with the Earth. our planet (SN: 20/01/20). It was also used in the early days of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence or SETI (SN: 29/05/12).
University of Central Florida
“Astronomers don’t have a lot of facilities,” Haynes says. Each new one is designed to have unique advantages over existing telescopes. "So when you lose one, it's gone."
The end of the observatory is also a symbolic and practical loss for Puerto Rico, says radio astronomy researcher Kevin Ortiz Ceballos, a student at the University of Puerto Rico in Arecibo who used the observatory to study the first known comet and interstellar stars to host exoplanets ( SN: 14/10/19).
“Arecibo is like an icon of Puerto Rican science,” he says. "This is absolutely devastating."
Ortiz Ceballos grew up watching Puerto Rican cartoons in which the characters went to Arecibo to use the telescope. His parents drove him for an hour and a half to visit the telescope. He believes he sparked his interest in astronomy and hoped to return to Puerto Rico to work in Arecibo after completing his doctorate.
“Puerto Rico has a huge problem of mass emigration,” he says. "It's a lot of people, and they're all my age. It's a huge brain drain. Being able to do what I love without having to leave has been a huge dream for me."
And not just him, he points out: Dozens of students at the university and the observatory, in addition to more than 200 Puerto Rican students who have gone through the observatory's high school program, have a similar history.
“Losing this, especially after all we’ve lost in the last half of the decade, makes me feel like we’re doomed to make our country just ruins,” he says. “It becomes a signifier of a wider collapse. That's really tragic. "