“We have seen nothing like this at Arecibo before,” Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala, a spokesperson for the University of Central Florida, one of the institutions that operates the observatory, told me. Engineers don’t know yet what caused the cable to break. For now, the telescope has paused observations.
Read: Waiting for a signal from Arecibo
It might be tempting to react to this photograph in the way many of us have responded recently to bits of bad news against the backdrop of the pandemic: Really, 2020? You couldn’t leave Arecibo alone? But Arecibo has experienced its share of disasters, large and small. In its efforts to survey the cosmos and uncover worlds beyond imagination, the observatory has been repeatedly derailed by the most earthly of obstacles. Earth is the only home we’ve got in the universe, but sometimes the planet can really ruin the view.
The trials that Arecibo has experienced over the years sound almost biblical in their proportions. In September 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, knocking out power across the island for months. The observatory famous for once broadcasting a radio message into the cosmos intended for any intelligent civilizations fell silent. During the storm, an antenna suspended over the observatory fell and punctured the dish, tearing a hole in the aluminum. But the observatory was back up and running within a week, powered by generators.
The hurricane struck at a moment when Arecibo’s future seemed more uncertain than ever. The National Science Foundation, which owns Arecibo, was already considering passing the observatory off to someone else so it could focus—and spend money on—other, new projects. Some feared the hurricane damage would make the NSF pull the plug, but the foundation eventually negotiated an agreement with a trio of institutions to take over operations, and astronomers around the world sighed in relief.
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Then, in January of this year, the earthquakes came. The tremors, some as strong as 6.4 magnitude, made observations impossible, and no one was allowed on-site. The dish wasn’t damaged, not like it was after an earthquake in 2014, but the observatory was forced to stop operations until the shaking from nearly a dozen quakes subsided.
The coronavirus pandemic has prevented astronomers from visiting Arecibo, but the telescope can be operated remotely, so the work continued. Even in the middle of a plague, Arecibo found itself facing more natural disasters. An asteroid that astronomers wanted to observe zoomed past Earth just as Tropical Storm Isaias struck Puerto Rico in July. Arecibo went quiet as the storm approached, then leapt into action as soon as it passed. Researchers managed to study the asteroid for two and a half hours, just enough time to learn about its shape and orbit.