One Of The World's Great Telescopes Badly Damaged After Cable Snaps

The damage to the Arecibo telescope looks remarkable for a single falling cable, but we don't yet know how hard it will be to restore. University of Central Florida

The Arecibo radio telescope, an icon of the quest to understand the universe beyond our planet, has suffered severe damage as a result of a cable snapping. The cause of the breakage, and how long the telescope will take to repair are currently unknown.

The University of Central Florida, one of Arecibo's operators, announced the damage on their website.

“One of the auxiliary cables that helps support a metal platform in place above the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, broke on Monday (Aug. 10) causing a 100-foot-long gash on the telescope’s reflector dish,” the UCF statement reads

“We have a team of experts assessing the situation,” said Francisco Cordova, the observatory's director. “Our focus is assuring the safety of our staff, protecting the facilities and equipment, and restoring the facility to full operations as soon as possible, so it can continue to assist scientists around the world.”

When built in 1963 Arecibo was the world's largest telescope, with a diameter of 1,000 feet (305 meters). It held that status for 53 years until exceeded by China's Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, an astonishingly long time for any scientific instrument to hold such a record. For many purposes, arrays of smaller and much more flexible telescopes now dramatically outperform Arecibo, but there are still purposes for which few other telescopes can match it. 

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You probably recognize it from its many movie cameos. JidoBG, 2008, Wikimedia Comomons

Arecibo suffered some damage when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017. Nevertheless, compared to the island-wide devastation, the temporary loss of a line feed and 0.1 percent of its aluminum panels was but a flesh wound, and the telescope's operations were barely affected.

Quite why an instrument that survived a hurricane should suffer such worse damage now is still to emerge.

One of Arecibo's prime uses has been in the search for extraterrestrial life, leading it to feature in the film Contact. (A harder to explain cameo in popular culture comes from its use as the lair of the villain in the Bond film Goldeneye). Data analyzed by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence SETI@home experiment is collected at Arecibo. Not surprisingly, the SETI Institute has been particularly displeased by this event.

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It's possible of course that maintenance on the telescope hasn't been of the standard required for something almost 60 years old. However, as many have noted in response to SETI's tweet, in 2020 things don't seem to need a reason to break.

Others noted Arecibo is also used to plot the orbits of potentially hazardous objects, making us partially blind to these dangers while it's down, although there was some disagreement as to whether or not this was a bad thing

How much it will cost to repair the dish, and whether funding agencies will pay in times like these, remain to be seen. The observatory has been on the verge of closing several times through lack of funding.

In the context of Arecibo's function, this gif seems particularly appropriate.

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