Sat. Oct 1st, 2022
The immense instrument platform and the large collection of cables that supported it are now all gone.

The immense instrument platform and the large collection of cables that supported it are now all gone.

Early Monday morning, a cable hanging over the Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico broke, breaking a 100-foot (30-meter) cut in the dish of the iconic radio telescope. The 3-inch diameter cable also damaged the panels of the Gregorian dome that hangs hundreds of feet above the dish and houses the telescope’s receivers. It’s unclear what caused the cable to break and when radio astronomers using the telescope can resume their research.

“This was an auxiliary cable used to support the weight of the platform, and we are in the process of assessing why it broke,” said Zenaida Kotala, the University of Central Florida’s assistant vice president for strategic initiatives. who runs the observatory. † “We are working with engineers to determine a repair strategy. Our goal is to get the facility up and running as soon as it is safe to do so.”

Astronomers have been using the Arecibo radio telescope since 1963 to study the cosmos. 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 radio telescope.) Built into a natural depression in the surrounding hills, the 300-meter-tall radio dish acts like a giant ear that listens for faint radio signals from galaxies far, far away.

“Being bigger just makes it more sensitive,” said Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the nonprofit SETI Institute, a leading research institute in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. “Just as a larger optical telescope can see fainter objects, a larger radio telescope can also ‘see’ fainter things.”

The Arecibo radio telescope has been used in a wide variety of scientific experiments and has been at the center of a number of firsts 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 pulsar, a type of rapidly rotating star used as an astrophysical clock to hunt for gravitational waves, and the first repeating Fast Radio Burst, a short pulse of high-energy radiation that scientists are just beginning to discover. 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 radio SETI search the same year construction began on Arecibo, served as the observatory’s director for many years. In 1974, he and Carl Sagan used the telescope to send the world’s first interstellar message to a galaxy 12,000 light-years away. It was a short pictorial message portraying humans, our DNA, and even the Arecibo dish itself. Since then, Arecibo’s SETI business has mainly focused on listening to ET. (Although in 2009 the artist Joe Davis effectively put his iPhone into the saucer and used it to send a second interstellar message.)

“A unique asset to SETI”

“We were deeply saddened by the news from Arecibo,” said Andrew Siemion, the director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center. “Arecibo is a unique asset to SETI and we are very much looking forward to returning to science operations.” Siemion and his colleagues at Berkeley spent years collecting radio data from Arecibo for SETI@Home, a distributed computing project that could help anyone with an Internet connection search for intelligent aliens. Earlier this year, the SETI@Home project stopped bringing in new data from Arecibo and other radio telescopes so that the researchers could focus on analyzing the data already collected.

Arecibo has also taught scientists much more about our own solar system. If it’s not listening for aliens or pulsars, the radio observatory can be used as a planetary radar. It generates a powerful beam of radio energy and bounces it off an object of interest in our solar system, such as a planet or an asteroid. “Its ability to send and receive radar signals makes it incredibly valuable to the planetary science community,” said Bruce Betts, chief scientist at the nonprofit Planetary Society. By studying the radio reflections from these objects, planetary scientists can gain detailed information about their orbits, map their surfaces or study their composition. In fact, the telescope plays a vital role in NASA’s planetary defense program, tasked with detecting and mitigating threats from giant killer asteroids.

But all these scientific operations will have to be interrupted until Arecibo’s saucer is repaired. While this is the most damage done to the observatory in recent history, it isn’t the first time the telescope has been hit. In 2014, an earthquake damaged a cable near the observatory, and a few years later Hurricane Maria destroyed the telescope. But Ramon Lugo, the director of the Florida Space Institute at the University of Central Florida, says past damage to the Arecibo telescope doesn’t quite compare to what happened to the broken cable this week. “It’s never happened before,” says Lugo.

Money problems

The damage caused by Hurricane Maria to Arecibo came at a particularly inopportune time for the observatory, which was struggling with major funding problems at the time. Arecibo is primarily supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, which awarded the observatory $12.3 million in emergency funds in 2018 for hurricane-related repairs. Kotala says it’s still unclear how much it will cost to repair the damage from the broken cable, but she’s confident the observatory will get the funding it needs.

“We have faced numerous challenges since we started operating and managing the observatory, but the team and our local community are resilient and continue to make progress,” said Kotala. “We have the full support of both NSF and our NASA stakeholders to make the necessary repairs to return to full operational capability. This is another chance to show the world that this team can weather the storm.”

This story first appeared on wired.com.

By akfire1

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