The iconic Arecibo space telescope is being decommissioned as it nears collapse

midian182

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In a nutshell: The Arecibo Observatory, the iconic US space telescope located in the Puerto Rican Jungle, is being decommissioned after 57 years of operation following two destructive cable breaks that have left it unable to be repaired safely.

Back in August, not long after Tropical Storm Isaias hit Puerto Rico, a 3-inch thick, auxiliary cable slipped from its socket, tearing a 100-foot hole in the 1000-foot reflector dish. Earlier this month, just before repairs were due to start, a 15,000-pound main cable broke from the same tower, hitting the dish and causing more damage to the panels below.

Even those unfamiliar with the telescope might remember it from the James Bond movie GoldenEye. The site was also used in Contact, Species, and a 1994 X-Files episode.

Both cables had been supporting the massive platform sitting 450 feet above the dish. If another cable fails, the 900-ton metal structure would come crashing into the disk, likely dragging the three support towers down. The cause of the initial cable break has not yet been established.

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) says that any attempts to repair the observatory would be too dangerous for those involved. "NSF has concluded that this recent damage to the 305m telescope cannot be addressed without risking the lives and safety of work crews and staff," said Sean Jones, assistant director of the mathematical and physical sciences directorate at NSF. "NSF has decided to begin the process of planning for a controlled decommissioning."

Even determining how long the observatory has left before it collapses is proving impossible. "Attempts at stabilization or testing the cables could result in accelerating the catastrophic failure," said Ralph Gaume, the director of the NSF's Division of Astronomical Sciences.

The observatory, operated by the University of Central Florida, Yang Enterprises and UMET under a five-year $20m agreement with NSF, has been used to search for extra-terrestrial life signs, investigate potentially dangerous near-earth asteroids, and analyze distant stars and planets.

Image credit: Photo Spirit

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Endymio

Posts: 1,067   +894
The US National Science Foundation (NSF) says that any attempts to repair the observatory would be too dangerous for those involved
Never trust a bureaucrat's opinion on what can and cannot be done. If we can build 2,500+ feet tall buildings and safely repair the Hubble telescope while in space, I think we can fix a cable on a big metal dish.
 

Irata

Posts: 987   +1,467
TechSpot Elite
Thanks - very interesting.

Noticed this though, which is a bit disconcerting, considering that Arecibo is being decommissioned:

Arecibo's larger secondary platform also houses several transmitters, making it one of only two instruments in the world capable of radar astronomy. The NASA-funded Planetary Radar System allows Arecibo to study solid objects from Mercury to Saturn, and to perform very accurate orbit determination on near-earth objects, particularly potentially hazardous objects. Arecibo also includes several NSF funded radars for ionospheric studies. These powerful transmitters are too large and heavy for FAST's small receiver cabin, so it will not be able to participate in planetary defence.
 
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Uncle Al

Posts: 7,592   +6,111
It's funny how the article only mentions how the telescope was featured in science fiction movies, but not a single real-world application. Like did it find any green men or not? :)
Actually there were a number of significant findings attributed to this device not the least of which was the verification of black holes and the "noise" of space attributed to the big bang. If you look on the Florida web site you will see an entire list.
 

Endymio

Posts: 1,067   +894
...not the least of which was the verification of black holes and the "noise" of space attributed to the big bang.
Not to denigrate Arecibo's self-promotion, but the CMBR was discovered by an AT&T horn antenna in New Jersey. Subsequent verification was primarily by the WMAP satellite. Arecibo's contributions in this area were minor.
 

Adhmuz

Posts: 2,065   +856
Well that's unfortunate news, I was just reading about this the other day, they hadn't mentioned it was to be decommissioned yet.

I really hope they have plans to rebuild it, or reconsider and find a way to repair it...
 

wiyosaya

Posts: 5,484   +3,581
Never trust a bureaucrat's opinion on what can and cannot be done. If we can build 2,500+ feet tall buildings and safely repair the Hubble telescope while in space, I think we can fix a cable on a big metal dish.
You just love throwing out strawmen, don't you?

Did it ever occur to you that this bureaucrat likely had an engineering team assess the damage and make recommendations as to whether to fix it or not?

The two tasks that you cite as examples of engineering achievement, while they are that, engineering achievements, are substantially different than fixing this telescope.

In addition, I am sure that in this day and age, there was an assessment of the value that would result from the investment in the project. These days, the multiple radio telescopes that are capable of participating in or performing VLBI on their own probably provide science that is as good or better than what Arecibo can do.

What the hey, don't all you guys on the right think that any scientific endeavor is not worth the cost?
 
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Endymio

Posts: 1,067   +894
You just love throwing out strawmen, don't you? What the hey, don't all you guys on the right think that any scientific endeavor is not worth the cost?
Well, the iconic example of blocking government spending on science is Senator Proxmire, the Democrat responsible for shutting down NASA's manned space exploration and SETI programs, along with a dozen others. If it wasn't for Proxmire, Arecibo would have been upgraded substantially in the 1980s. I might also point out that, when NASA tried to revive manned missions to the moon with their Constellation program, it was Obama who cancelled it.

Also, while it is very well possible that the cost-benefit ratio may weigh against repairing Arecibo, that was not what the NSF said. They said it "couldn't be safely repaired", period. And finally, to correct yet another error, I'm not "on the right", despite your preconceptions.
 
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PurpleYoda

Posts: 133   +88
“ The cause of the initial cable break has not yet been established.” - this is obvious! They got too close to discovering aliens and so a small sabotage was in order by the aliens already living amongst us... duh! 8-O
 

defaultluser

Posts: 50   +49
Never trust a bureaucrat's opinion on what can and cannot be done. If we can build 2,500+ feet tall buildings and safely repair the Hubble telescope while in space, I think we can fix a cable on a big metal dish.

The reason they abandoned it is two:

1: You can't use a portable crane to hoist the 900 short-tons antenna platform (so they can replace the broken cables safely), so you would have to assemble a crane on-site (in the jungle.)

2: as-posted in the article, they have no idea why the original cable failed (so it would be a lot more than just replacing the two broken (and re-certifying the third). Metal fatigue is pain to track-down the source of.

If you're already being forced to break-down the structure (to validate all load-bearing members), then you might as well rebuild.

But with the single remaining cable, I wouldn't use the dish until that antenna falls on you.
 
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“ The cause of the initial cable break has not yet been established.” - this is obvious! They got too close to discovering aliens and so a small sabotage was in order by the aliens already living amongst us... duh! 8-O
.. and the lizard, byte the cable.
 

jelabarre59

Posts: 13   +6
Yes, it will be quite the instrument. China's brand of moderated socialism may be hell on its citizens, but it certainly allows it an edge in big-budget projects of this sort.
Sure, massive human-rights abuses and organ-harvesting from prisoners of conscience and political prisoners are quite OK as long as a cool science project gets built.
 
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Irata

Posts: 987   +1,467
TechSpot Elite
Sure, massive human-rights abuses and organ-harvesting from prisoners of conscience and political prisoners are quite OK as long as a cool science project gets built.
That was not my point.
Rather that we used to reach for the stars but now our priorities have changed and the danger is exactly that these kinds of countries keep pushing science forward.

Did the US let the Soviet Union win the space race ?