Early Monday morning, a cable suspended over the Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico broke and left a 100-foot-long[100 m]long gill on the iconic radio telescope dish. The 3-inch diameter cable also caused damage to the panels of the Gregorian cube that is suspended hundreds of feet above the plate and accommodates the telescope receivers. It is unclear what caused the cable to break or when radio astronomers using the telescope will be able to resume their studies.
“This was an auxiliary cable used to support the weight of the platform, and we are in the process of assessing why it broke down,” said Zenaida Kotala, vice president for strategic initiatives at the University of Central Florida, which manages the Observatory. “We are working with engineers to define a repair strategy. Our goal is to get the facility up and running as quickly as possible to make it safe. “
Astronomers have used the Arecibo radio telescope to study the cosmos since 1963. For most of its life, the Observatory was by far the largest telescope of its kind in the world. (It was only recently surpassed by China’s FAST telescope.) Its 1,000-meter plate is built into a natural depression in the surrounding hills and acts like a giant ear listening to faint radio signals from galaxies far, far away.
“Being bigger, it’s just more sensitive,” says Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the lucrative SETI Institute, a leading research institution in extraterrestrial intelligence research. “Just as a larger optical telescope can see weaker objects, so a larger telescope can ‘see’ things that are weaker.”
The Arecibo radio telescope has been used for a wide range of scientific experiments and was at the center of a number one that have changed our understanding of the universe. In 1994, astronomers studying a pulsar with Arecibo found the first evidence of a planet orbiting another star. Arecibo also discovered the first millisecond pulse, a type of fast-spinning star used as an astrophysical clock in the hunt for gravitational waves, and the first repetitive of fast radio, a short pulse of high-energy radiation that scientists are just beginning to understand.
The history of the Arecibo telescope is also deeply intertwined with the history of SETI. Planetary astronomer Frank Drake, who conducted the first search on SETI radio the same year construction began in Arecibo, served as director of observation for years. In 1976, he and Carl Sagan used the telescope to transmit the world’s first interstellar message to a star system 12,000 light-years away. It was a pictorial short message depicting humans, our DNA, and even the Arecibo vessel itself. Since then, Arecibo’s activities for SETI have focused mainly on listening to ET. (Although in 2009 artist Joe Davis effectively put his iPhone on the plate and used it to transmit a second interstellar message.)
“We were very saddened by the news about Arecibo,” said Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center. “Arecibo is a special asset to SETI and we look forward to his return to scientific operations.” For years, Siemion and its Berkeley colleagues collected radio data from Arecibo for SETI @ Home, a distributed computing project that allowed anyone with an Internet connection to help search for intelligent aliens. Earlier this year, the SETI @ Home project stopped retrieving new data from Arecibo and other telescopes so that its researchers could focus on analyzing the data already collected.