The Arecibo telescope just suffered more damage that will delay the search for asteroids and aliens


  • The Arecibo Observatory is a radio telescope that hunts down dangerous asteroids and helps scientists search for extraterrestrial life.
  • He just suffered his second catastrophic cable break in just three months.
  • In August, an auxiliary cable broke and tore a hole in the observatory’s reflective dish.
  • On Friday, a cable associated with the first broke and crashed into the antenna.
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A major astronomical observatory suffered its second disaster of the year.

In August, a 3-inch-thick auxiliary cable from the Arecibo Observatory came out of its socket and tore a 100-foot gash in the reflector dish below. Then on Friday night, a trunk cable broke off the same tower and crashed into the antenna, further damaging the panels as well as other cables.

Officials are investigating the new failure, although they do not yet know why the last cable broke. A press release from the University of Central Florida, which is cooperating with the telescope, suggests the break could be related to the additional weight the cable has carried since August.

The extent of the new damage was not immediately clear. No one was injured in either incident.

“It’s not good, but we remain committed to bringing the facility back online,” Observatory Director Francisco Cordova said in the statement. “It is too important a tool for the advancement of science. ”

Many people recognize the observatory from the James Bond film “GoldenEye”, but scientists know it for its contributions to planetary security and the search for alien life. Astronomers use the 20-acre radio telescope to study dangerous asteroids as they fly over Earth, hoping to identify space rocks on a collision course early enough to intervene before they strike.

Scientists also used Arecibo to look for signs of intelligent alien life. In 1974, the Observatory aired the most powerful program ever sent by Earth to communicate with potential aliens. In 2016, it detected the first repeated rapid radio bursts – mysterious signals from space that scientists say now come from dead stars.

“Its sensitivity is so much greater than any other instrument and it is so much more flexible,” Joanna Rankin, radio astronomer at the University of Vermont, told Science, adding that Arecibo could see “from the stratosphere down to the top. edge of the universe. . ”

“It would be a huge shame if this were lost,” she said.

Repairs could cost tens of millions of dollars

The Gregorian dome hangs above the 1000-foot reflective dish of the Arecibo Observatory in 2012.
Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Engineers had been ready to begin repairs to the August crash this week. But after the new failure, they work instead to secure and stabilize the structure of the observatory.

“The team hopes to be able to reduce the tension in the existing cables at the tower and install steel reinforcements to temporarily alleviate some of the additional load that is distributed among the remaining cables,” the statement said. ‘UCF.

Observatory officials also plan to speed up the delivery of two new cables they had already ordered. Experts will reassess what is needed to assess the structure in the coming days.

The university said there were currently no cost estimates for the necessary repairs.

In October, UCF requested $ 10.5 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF), which owns the observatory, for emergency repairs, Science reported. When the observatory was hit by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, the NSF granted $ 2 million to repair the damage.

The NSF allocated $ 12.3 million for repairs and infrastructure improvements over four years in 2019, UCF reported.

“We were thoughtful in our assessment and prioritized safety in planning the repairs that were to start on Tuesday. Now it is, ”Cordova said. “There is a lot of uncertainty until we can stabilize the structure. He has our full attention. We are assessing the situation with our experts and hope to have more to share soon. “


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