Officials at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico still don’t know what caused a cable failure that severely damaged the facility’s iconic radio telescope this week and had to temporarily turn it off.
On Monday (August 10), an auxiliary cable carrying a platform suspended over the 300 meter wide radio dish broke and crashed into the reflector plates of the telescope, creating a cut about 100 feet (100 feet) in the shell. 30 m) long.
In a press conference with reporters on Friday (August 14), Arecibo director Francisco Cordova said that 250 of the observatory’s primary reflector shells were damaged, along with several support cables under the shell. Observatory officials have not yet fully assessed the extent of the damage or the cost of the repairs needed to get the 56-year-old radio telescope – once the largest single radio dish on earth – back into operation.
Connected: The Arecibo Observatory: A huge radio telescope in photos
Cordova said the auxiliary cable is rated to last at least another 15 to 20 years, so it’s not clear why the cable failed. It was one of several auxiliary cables added to the observatory in the 1990s to support a new extension to the telescope, the Gregorian Dome, which houses an antenna receiver on the platform.
In a statement released Monday, UCF officials said about six to eight panels on the Gregorian dome were damaged by the broken cable and that the platform used to access the dome was slightly twisted. But it’s not yet clear whether the instruments in the dome were affected, Cordova said, adding that officials are still inspecting the damage.
Before the observatory staff begin replacing the panels on the radio dish, their first priority will be to ensure the structural stability of the platform and protect staff, Cordova said.
No one was injured in the accident on Monday at around 2:45 a.m.CET (0645 a.m. GMT) because the facility was closed at that time. If the cable broke during the day and the staff worked on site, Arecibo staff could have been injured, Ramon Lugo, director of the Florida Space Institute at the University of Central Florida (UCF), told Science Magazine. UCF manages the National Science Foundation observatory.
The Arecibo Observatory has been closed indefinitely until the telescope can be repaired. While the observatory is best known for its work in finding life and potentially dangerous near-Earth asteroids, astronomers use it for a variety of space exploration and observations. Some of the work that has been put on hold until the telescope is repaired includes studies of gravitational waves and pulsars, Cordova said.
Connected: The Arecibo Observatory is weathering tropical storm Isaias to track down potentially dangerous asteroids
Although the extent of the damage is not yet clear, Cordova is confident that Arecibo will bounce back – as it has done several times before. In January of this year, Arecibo was shut down by a major earthquake that was severely damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2018.
“The observatory has had a lot of options over the years and this is just another bump in the road,” Cordova said. “We’re a pretty resilient bunch.”
Email Hanneke Weitering to [email protected] or follow her @hannekescience. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.