One of the most powerful telescopes in the world is on the brink of collapse.
Arecibo, a giant radio observatory nestled in the lush mountains of Puerto Rico, did some of the dreamiest work in astronomy. But it was forced to stop operations this year after suffering unprecedented damage, and officials now believe that it is beyond repair. Instead of trying to fix it, they’re going to tear it down.
The trouble began in August. A metal support cable weighing thousands of pounds slipped out of its socket and plummeted into the cavernous, 1,000-foot-wide radio dish in the middle of the night. The cable, installed in the 1990s, was considered fairly new for an observatory that began operations in 1963, and the incident confounded Arecibo’s stewards. The cable “definitely should not have failed in the way it did,” Ashley Zauderer, the Arecibo program director at the National Science Foundation,which owns the telescope, said during a press conference today.
By the time the sun rose the next day, the telescope was transformed. The great Arecibo, where the fictional astronomer Ellie Arroway scanned the cosmos for unexplainable phenomena in Contact—and where countless real astronomers did the same—now resembled a crumbled set from an apocalyptic disaster movie.
Officials were hopeful they could repair the damage, and outlined a plan. But earlier this month, just days before engineers were scheduled to try to stabilize the telescope, another piece of hardware came smashing into the dish. A main cable, one of the originals installed when the observatory was built, had snapped, causing even more damage. Engineers had recently inspected the cable, and though they saw that some of its exterior wires had torn, they thought it was strong enough to hang on. “It was just not seen as an immediate threat, and I don’t think anyone understood that clearly the cable had deteriorated,” Zauderer said. The gut punch is that this main cable was scheduled to be replaced this year.