A radio telescope in Puerto Rico made famous in astronomy circles for its exciting discoveries and made famous for its role in pop culture as being used as the backdrop for the hit movies “Golden Eye” with Pierce Brosnan as James Bond and “Contact” with Jodie Foster as Dr. Ellie Arrowa is going to be decommissioned and destroyed. The massive scientific facility has weathered severe hurricanes and earthquakes in recent years; however, structural failures that suddenly popped up in the last few months have doomed it.
Back on August 10, an auxiliary cable supporting the radio telescope suddenly snapped, damaging the telescope and creating a structural weakness on the system of cables and towers that suspend the structure in the hills of Puerto Rico. Last Friday, a main cable connected to the same support tower, also broke, causing additional damage to the dish and other nearby cables. While no one was hurt in either incident, experts believe additional failing cables and support towers pose an immediate hazard to engineers and scientists around the telescope.
The National Science Foundation (NSF), which oversees Arecibo, assessed the impact of the cable breaks and found that the facility’s other cables could also fail soon. If some of the remaining cables break, engineers fear that the 900-ton suspended platform above the facility could come crashing down on Arecibo’s iconic 1,000-foot-wide dish. According to the NSF assessment, it is also possible that support towers could also topple over, hitting the visitor’s center or other important nearby buildings at the scientific facility.
After careful assessment and consideration, the NSF decided today to decommission the 305m radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory.
“This decision is not an easy one for NSF to make, but the safety of people is our number one priority,” said Sean Jones, the agency’s assistant director for the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate. “We understand how much Arecibo means to this community and to Puerto Rico.”
He said the goal was to preserve the telescope without placing people at risk, but, “we have found no path forward to allow us to do so safely.”
The planetary radar capability at Arecibo, funded by NASA’s Near-Earth Object (NEO) Observations Program, has served as one of two major planetary radar capabilities. It has allowed NASA to fully characterize the precise orbits, sizes, and shapes of some NEOs passing within radar range after they are discovered by wide-field optical telescope survey projects. According to the NSF, while the 305m radio telescope is being decommissioned, the Arecibo facility and its STEM education and other assets will continue.
The Arecibo Observatory was home to one of the most powerful telescopes on the planet. Its instruments were used by scientists around the world to conduct research in the areas of atmospheric sciences, planetary sciences, radio astronomy and radar astronomy.
In January of this year, China brought on-line the world’s largest radio telescope. The Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope, known as “FAST” and nicknamed Tianyan, which means “Eye of the Sky/Heaven”, is a radio telescope located in Pingtang County, Guizhou, southwest China. FAST consists of fixed 500 m (1,600′) diameter dish constructed in a natural depression in the landscape and serves as the world’s largest filled-aperture radio telescope.