Arecibo Radio Telescope Can't Be Saved

A distant view from above the Arecibo telescope among mountains and forest

The giant space telescope where Sean Bean's villainous James Bond character Alec Trevelyan famously plunged to his death in GoldenEye is set to close down, ending 57 years of service as an astronomical conduit, film set and tourist site. An auxiliary cable broke in August and tore a 100-foot hole in the reflector dish and damaged the dome above it.

The observatory was damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and was affected by earthquakes in 2019 and 2020. Cables hold up a 900-ton equipment platform over the telescope's huge reflector dish, and those cables have begun to fail.

What the entire astronomy and astrophysics community feared has materialized: the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico - one of the oldest, most renowned and beloved on the planet - will be permanently disabled and its enormous antenna, probably imploded.

Last week, one of the telescope's main steel cables that was capable of sustaining 544,000 kilograms snapped under only 283,000 kilograms. Not long after, it was reported that a second cable had snapped, forcing the NSF to evaluate how to fix it. Inspection of other cables found that some of the main cables had wire breaks and auxiliary cables were slipping from their sockets. For this reason, the authorities have made a decision to demolish the structure as it can put the lives of workers at risk.

"The NSF has concluded that recent damage to the 305-meter telescope can not be remedied without risking the lives and safety of crews and employees", said Shawn Jones, assistant director of the NSF's Directorate of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, on Thursday.

Wreckage is seen in a wide gash in the dish of the Arecibo telescope littered with foliage and overgrowth
The support cables fell and ripped large gashes in the telescope's reflector dish

The topic was also trending on Twitter with many people from the scientific community remembering their Association with the iconic telescope.

"Each of the remaining cables in the structure now supports more weight than before, which increases the chance of another cable malfunctioning, leading to the collapse of the entire structure". Giant, aging cables that support the radio telescopes are slowly unraveling in this USA territory, threatening scientific projects that researchers say can't be done elsewhere on the planet.

"NSF prioritises the safety of workers, Arecibo Observatory's staff and visitors, which makes this decision necessary, although unfortunate", said NSF director Sethuraman Panchanathan. "Even attempts at stabilization or testing the cables could result in accelerating the catastrophic failure".

The Arecibo message as sent 1974 from the Arecibo Observatory. MOP was planned as a long-term effort to conduct a general survey of the sky and also carry out targeted searches of 800 specific nearby stars.

UCF hired two other engineering companies to provide independent assessments of the telescope.

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