This week, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico – an iconic structure made famous by movies like contact and Goldeneye – had to stop the observations of the Universe after a structural cable failed, punching a hole in the giant plate of the object reflector. Observatory operators say the overall facility is mostly good, but they are working to figure out exactly what went wrong.
“Most of this primary reflector is in good condition, but our focus is really making sure the platform has the structural stability needed to operate in the near future,”; said Francisco Cordova, director of the University of Florida Observatory. Central, said during a press conference.
Monday morning, one of the cables that helps to hold a large metal platform over the detached observation. The end of the cable slipped from one of its sockets, causing the three-inch-wide cord to fall to the ground. The incident destroyed about 250 panels that make up the main plate of the reflector, creating a 100-meter-long gap structure. The accident also slightly damaged panels in the large Gregorian dome above the Observatory, a white golf ball-shaped structure that houses reflectors that help direct the object’s observations of the sky.
Damage photos make it look particularly bad, but the Arecibo reflector main plate consists of 40,000 panels – making the overall damage very small. However, the Observatory may not be operating at full capacity in the meantime. Normally, Arecibo is operating 24/7, with observations typically taking place between 3:00 and 7 a.m. every day, according to Cordova. The UCF sent a note to all Arecibo users, notifying them that observations have been left pending for at least a two-week period. However, the team does not know how long it will take to repair the damage – or how much it will cost.
“These cables are very common for this particular application,” Cordova said. “So they take, you know, a little time to fabricate and ship and install them.” They hope to have more information by the end of next week, he says. The Arecibo Observatory is funded through the National Science Foundation.
Right now, operators at UCF are starting an investigation into the incident, as they still do not know why the cable was cut. “It was certainly an unprecedented event,” Cordova said. “These cables are expected to last at least another 15, 20 years at a minimum.” The broken cable was installed more than 20 years ago, Cordova said, when the Gregorian Cup was added to the facility. Investigators are still trying to find out the origin of the failure. “We have barely started this effort,” said Ray Lugo, director of the UCF Space Institute in Florida and the leader overseeing the investigation, he told a news conference. “Our focus now is on making sure we protect our people, and the unique equipment and devices we have here.”
Not only has Arecibo been featured in numerous films, but the Observatory is also critical of numerous deep-space observations, used to search for exotic cosmic objects and events such as pulsars, radio wave cracks, and so on. The dish is also useful for planetary defense, helping NASA search for potentially dangerous asteroids near Earth that could pose a threat to our planet. Arecibo also receives special attention for its involvement in the Overseas Intelligence Research (SETI). As part of this project, she scans the sky for possible radio broadcasts by intelligent beings.
Arecibo has also overcome many storms – both figurative and literal – in recent years, and the UCF is confident that this will only be a small delay. “We are a very resilient gang … I think we have proven that after the impact of Hurricane Maria,” Cordova said. “We were tested again with some earthquakes and then we were tested again with this pandemic and now, this is just a hit on the road.”