The days of Arecibo are over. The National Science Foundation announced on November 19 that, after two support cables failed in recent months, the observatory’s radio dish, which was 305 meters wide, had been damaged beyond repair.
“It’s a death in the family,” says astronomer Martha Heinz of Cornell University, who has used the telescope in Puerto Rico to study hydrogen in the universe since she graduated from college in 1973. “It’s a death in the family.” “For those who are using Arecibo and have been hoping to use it in the future, it’s a disaster.”
The Telescope, famous for appearing in movies such as Golden eye And the call, It consists of a wide dish to collect radio waves from space and focus them in detectors located in a dome suspended above the dish. In August, one of the cables holding the dome slipped out of the socket and punched a hole in the plate.
Hines said NSF and the University of Central Florida, which operates the telescope, have plans to repair the cable. But then the second cable broke unexpectedly on November 6. If a third cable breaks, this could send the platform holding the dome down, or the entire structure could collapse.
NSF declared that there is no safe way to repair the telescope, the agency announced on November 19.
“Until these assessments emerged, our question was not whether or not the observatory should be reformed but how,” said Ralph Jaum, director of the Department of Astronomy at the National Science Foundation, in a statement. Ultimately, however, the abundance of data showed that we simply could not do it safely. This is a line that we cannot cross. “
The lockdown is the latest in a series of impending disasters for Arecibo. A different cable was damaged in an earthquake in 2014. Hurricane Maria delayed repairing that cable in 2017, which temporarily shut down the observatory as Puerto Rico suffered from blackouts and humanitarian crises.SN: 9/29/17). The observatory has been a victim of threat or actual budget cuts for years (SN: 11/17/17).
But her loss was a big 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 track near-Earth asteroids that could collide with our planet)SN: 1/20/20). It was also used in the early days of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI (SN: 5/29/12).
“Astronomers don’t have a lot of facilities,” says Haynes. Each new one is designed to have unique advantages over existing telescopes. “So when you lose one, it disappears.”
The end of the observatory is also a symbolic and practical loss to Puerto Rico, says radio astronomer Kevin Ortiz Ceballos, an elder at the University of Puerto Rico in Arecibo who used the observatory to study the first comet and interstellar known stars that host exoplanets (SN: 10/14/19).
“Arecibo is like an icon of Puerto Rican flag,” he says. “This is very devastating.”
Ortiz Ceballos grew up watching Puerto Rican animes in which characters went to Arecibo to use a telescope. His parents led him for an hour and a half to visit the telescope. He is credited with sparking his interest in astronomy, and he hoped to return to Puerto Rico to work at Arecibo after completing his Ph.D.
“Puerto Rico has a huge mass immigration problem,” he says. “There are so many people, and all of them are my age. It’s a huge brain drain. Being able to do what I love without having to leave was a big dream for me.”
And not just him, he notes: Dozens of students at the university and the observatory, plus the more than 200 Puerto Rican students who have taken to the observatory’s high school program, have a similar story.
“Losing this, especially after all that we have lost over the past half-decade, makes me feel as if we are destined for our country to be just ruins,” he says. It becomes an indication of a wider collapse. This is just really tragic. “
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